Old Age Becomes an Escort

A hard slog of a morning’s shift working at the Airport and I was on a break, confronted with the blare of the large oblong TV screen in the staff room.  On it was a juicy chunk of advert for a TV program sandwiched in between the bland, white, crowd-pleasing bread of the morning breakfast show.

‘Grannies working as escorts!’  the screen screamed ‘They’re topping up their pensions!’.  And there was a frankly old woman in a dressing-gown, hobbling down the stairs with a walking stick.  Apparently she worked part-time as a prostitute.  ‘I like sex!’  she said with a bright, expansive smile as she sat in her kitchen wielding her teapot.  ‘I have no inhibitions.  And men love it!’

Okay.  Right.  On the drive home from work I debated the issue in the royal court of my mind where I am undisputed Queen.  All the way home I was thinking, well if it makes her happy then good luck to her.  It is not illegal to work as a prostitute, so she has every right to her own business.  I think everybody has a right to their own business, because I might be wrong.  There could be a God.

Other people can do as they wish, I decided, but as far as I’m concerned, prostitution is way out of the ballpark for me.  My brush with it as a troubled young woman alone in a strange city was enough to put me off it for life.  It’s a nice fantasy, but I found the reality of it dangerous and degrading.

I am not keen on allowing men I don’t know to eat me up and fill me to annihilation point with the alien beat of their unknown lives and saliva and sweat and dirt and semen.  And then for them to just leave, while I lie staring dirt-caked at the ceiling, wondering exactly when the blazing electric light ends and the shadows begin.

My life has to be simple.  Prostitution is not simple.  A woman has to have a hard head to handle it, especially in frail old age.  Anyway I am not going to work as a prostitute.  I have a loving husband in a marriage of 20 years and am very happy.  So that’s settled then.

Later on my laptop after lunch and my usual two cups of tea, I researched the program.  It was a UK study of three mature aged women who worked as ‘escorts’.  I balk at the disrespectful word ‘granny’, but what intrigued me was that this 85 year old woman absolutely refused to call herself a prostitute.  She had created a mystique.  She worked as an ‘escort’, she said.  She entertained gentlemen and charged them for her time.  She advertised herself on an Internet website, revealing her breasts and inviting men to ‘share forbidden fruits’.

Actually I’m kind of awestruck by the sheer tenacity of this old woman carrying on the way she does.  85 years is as old as I optimistically expect to live.  So many people that age are in a nursing home with all kinds of debilitating afflictions and here she is, nonchalantly ticking over her life by amusing herself with men.

Or maybe the wheels will come off in a sad and undignified way.  Most of her family are not talking to her because they see this diversion of hers as compromising the kind of social obligations expected at her age.  But she has continued to work as an escort.  Sex makes her happy even just thinking about it, she says.

The oldest profession has always drawn censure from mainstream society and probably always will.  It is, by its nature secretive and can therefore be quite risky.  One might ask if prostitution is the best thing that an old woman can do with her time.  But then again near the end of one’s life and still of sound mind and body, would it be only natural to turn to doing the things that make one happy?

For my father, nearing his eightieth year and finding himself ‘still here’, what makes him happy is researching the history of Ancient Rome, collecting sea shells and birdwatching.  No conflict with family there.

Is it selfish of this twice widowed old woman to pursue happiness in a way that conflicts with her family relationships and perhaps puts her life at risk?  Is she running from confronting what she describes as an acute sense of loneliness?  Or is it that the family is trying to suppress her instinct for sexual freedom?  Near the end of life, should one temper their desires with respect to other people’s wishes and their family duties?  Or is the woman’s predilection simply none of the family’s business?

I can’t decide.  I can’t even decide if I should decide.  What do you think?

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Some Things I Hate About Chanel

At the international airport is an office called the Tourist Refund Scheme.  Tourists can spend their money, save their receipts and upon the day of departure claim their 10% GST back.  The government in its wisdom thinks this is good for business.  But nobody likes to work there because naturally this attracts a horde of locusts all brandishing wads of receipts.  There are long delays they chafe impatiently at and they get upset if receipts are ineligible for refunds.

And the receipts all detail orgies of spending that outline in merciless detail what shallow personal priorities people can have.  I mean, why do people spend $5000 and upwards on a Chanel handbag that wouldn’t even hold half the stuff I need to survive?  My male colleagues deplore the waste.  But the Chinese students love them.  Coming from a country where cheap fake brands are easily obtainable everywhere, the distinctive and unmistakeable stamp of authenticity holds a very special cachet for these girls who are probably starving themselves to get hold of a Chanel bag.

Over the counter, hundreds of them are displayed for claims every day.  Each exquisite bag of quilted marshmallow with its signature strap of gleaming metal chain are discreetly viewed reposing on its bed of tissue paper in its neat cardboard cradle.  And oh yes, how can I forget?  There on each bag the famous silver interlocked CC logo stampthat each eager customer pays to advertise the Chanel brand.

A Chanel bag

A typical Chanel trophy bag

The Chanel receipts are always unimpeachable.  The ABN prominently displayed, a clear invoice number, the ATO requirement that receipts of over $1000 have the customer’s name and residential address always complied with, everything is easy to read.  Yes, Chanel is big business in a world where style and social stratification are the uniform code-names for success.  In the hands of a young graduate woman, the Chanel bag becomes a weapon to carve out her place in the world.

Except that this kind of conformism also breeds a multi-billion dollar industry of envy, imitation and deceit.  Fairly recently a bold, brassy, palatial new shopping centre has sprung up in the city where Chanel naturally has opened a store.  One afternoon as I was looking through one of the shops an assistant, all agog, told me that the Chanel store had just been robbed in broad daylight.  The audacious female thief had come in, ostensibly to try on bags before the mirror.  She had just got two armloads of different bags when she suddenly made a run for it, startling the security beef at the door who failed to stop her because he did not want to leave the store.  The loss? approximately $50,000.  On passing by later on I noticed the store was closed, sunk in humiliation, at a very early hour indeed.

And this brings me to mind some things that are wrong with Chanel.  What does it do for women today?  A couple of biopic movies of Coco Chanel have come and gone.  In one of them the French actor Audrey Tatou plays a woman who played the kept mistress and yet plied her unique talents in dress-making and design to brilliant success.  Scornful of the creakily inhibiting 19th century female garb of overblown frippery, trailing skirts and straight-jacket style corsets, she lived and worked to banish it, clothing women in the kind of gear they could run to catch a morning train to work in.

She brought us the collarless tweed jacket one could wear with

Coco Chanel

Sigh! I so would love to steal this jacket…

everything, the plain little black dress that was always a sensation dressed up or down, the matching jacket and skirt that never went out of fashion and always appropriate in the workplace, the now ubiquitous breton fisherman striped top, the tailored wide-legged pants, beige, linen, ropes of fake pearls, the camellia and jersey.  And of course the famous perfumes, decreeing that ‘a woman who does not wear perfume has no future’.

So what’s not to like about Chanel?  She is revered as a goddess, a legend, an inspiration.  There is an enduring and undeniable beauty in her cut and design.  But what was a strength in the early days of the 20th century, the convent inspired functionality, the plain simple elegant uniformity has perhaps drained some of the colour, individuality, spontaneity, risk taking and creativity out of the meaning of the word fashion.

Karl Lagerfeld

But these days Chanel has become rigidly conformist and impracticable…

The house of Chanel especially in latter years under that of her acolyte Karl Lagerfeld, has turned fashion instead into a conformist armageddon of expensive, intimidating style where the warrior wearer is safe on all fronts.

Toeless boots

I mean, really!

Today the Chanel style of chic functions to checkmate others into feeling envious and inadequate, overdressed or under-dressed and inferior.  It has become a fashion house steeped deep in the increasing and deplorable social stratification of our world.

I want clothes bursting with colour and fantasy in this, our only world:  reds, purples, cobalts, ochres, acqua and paisleys.  I want opulence, decadence, lusciousness and all lengths of skirts, especially long ones.  I want silk scarves fluttering like summer night breezes around my neck and anonymous but picturesque bags.  There being nothing on the racks worth buying but derivative clothes, I want to make my own clothes and be proud to wear them.  I want people everywhere to feel free to wear whatever they damn well like – as long as it goes, of course.

Isabella Blow

Isabella Blow was more my kind of gal…

Pop Trivia Day

I really have more important things to do and because of that I’ve been engrossed in the public argument between the veteran singer Sinead O’Connor and the brash, young pop star Miley Cyrus.  What the hell it’s Saturday, sunny but mid-spring cool outside and I’ve slept in, had breakfast, had lunch, haven’t gone out and am just doing what I fucking well like.

Over the past weeks, I’ve been reading about Cyrus’s notoriously provocative antics at the MTV Video Music Awards 1913 and all the online commentary.  Then she released her single ‘Wrecking Ball’ to a routinely naughty video, citing O’Connor’s iconic song ‘Nothing Compares 2U’ as an influence.  Apparently unwilling to endorse Cyrus’s product,  O’Connor penned an open letter ‘in the spirit of motherliness’ to Cyrus advising her of the perils of provocative antics in the harshly exploitative and perfidious music industry and of the danger it represents to young women in everyday life.

You would think a heedless, vacuous chit like Cyrus would just tell her to stick it, but she did worse than that.  She tweeted a screen grab of O’Connor’s public battle with a serious mental illness and made a mockery of it – and a mockery of her lone, brave protest against the Catholic Church’s history of child abuse years before the evil spilled out of the closets into full public disclosure.  It was a cruel, demeaning gesture and offensive to people suffering from mental illness everywhere.

O’Connor hit back with threats of legal action as she pointed out the damage this rehash of her bi-polar episode, with the suggestion that it was current, was doing to her career.  Movingly, she said how hard it is to get work when people assume you are mentally ill.  But Cyrus is blithely sitting on a fortune, her latest output parading around the tops of the pop charts and her spangled, uncaring, blaring, laughing bandwagon moves on.

Why do I care?  Well for one thing, this isn’t news about the devastation of wars, pollution or people dying.  It’s news for the living room, for people like me living in comfortable, ordinary suburbia with regular problematic jobs to go to on Monday and the weekly shopping to do sometime soon.  It’s something to think about:  whether there is justice in the world or such a thing as karma.  Are passionate, idealistic, creative individuals like O’Connor forever doomed to be scratching for a living, or can we see it that she is in some way mightily blessed?  That her life, full of unhappy struggle and thrown in the dirt as it was, is nevertheless a true, beautiful and authentic one?

On Freedom, Elizabeth Wurtzel and Middle Class Fantasy

Am pondering on the essay the above author has recently written as well as the commentary (which I find more interesting than the writing).  A torrent of electric, self analysis of a curious emptiness.  I wonder about one comment especially – ‘Elizabeth Wurtzel knows how to write, she just has nothing to write from’.

Does one has to live a certain way of life to write?  Does great writing require talent and observation besides commitment, nothing more?  No matter what circumstances a writer is in, or how hemmed about by a sense of futility, the writing would well through the cracks, surge like a flood of blood from under a shut and bolted door – will it?

One thing that vaguely annoys me is her wholesale dismissal of the kind of life many of us live – you know the house in downtown suburbia, the husband, the regular job and the superannuation.  It reminds me of a reality TV show I saw once about people living as early Victorians in a country manor.  In it the resident hermit in the garden warms his hands before a fire in his cave and says to the TV viewer that he has to make his apparently free and easy life look enviable to the others supposedly trapped by a mesh of invisible conventions in the warm, snug house.

So, that freedom…  That supposed rush of supreme self-actualisation one gets when there is nothing left to lose.  My late 1970s undergraduate English literature texts were full of it.  Bohemians and artists over especially since the 19th century Romantic period have declaimed that same old song, rejecting the trappings of a conventional life for the uncertainty of a total commitment to their creativity.

Except that in reality there is no life without uncertainty anywhere – not even in the most deathly of suburban McMansion lands – and then it all becomes some insane, nitpicking argument about degrees.  Even the bravest of us would agree that uncalculated risks are only what idiots take.  And when you talk about compromise:  well reality is one long series of compromises, from being flung amongst some rocks on X patch of red desert sand at birth and having to settle for being physically unable to fly onwards.

But are we talking about work or lifestyle here?  Because neither Bob Dylan, nor Janis Joplin, nor Elizabeth Wurtzel (who have all chanted about the virtues of Freedom and Having Nothing) have nothing.  All of them have works of art in the public canon.  They have done the kind of work they’re rather good at and have certain intangibles – ‘human capital’ as Wurtzel herself puts it.  How many other people have embraced this Freedom is Nothing myth, tried to live that life and failed because they just didn’t have the talent or if you like, the egotistical obsession?  And how dumb have they been?  It makes no sense to throw away everything you need to survive.

Actually the whole essay seems to read like a long goodbye, as if the what is not said – that her life is now on a ledge – is settling upon her heavily, inevitably, bleakly.  The realisation that settles like a black crow on the shoulder, that one is no longer young and that having completed the full circle of that cycle of youthfulness, must face that scythed stubble on the field, the shadows behind past actions and inactions now sharply delineated in the blazing noonday sun.  Everybody has to face that uh-oh moment.  Why  are her golden self-affirmations in the face of Gotterdammerung so different from all the supposed lies about happiness told in suburbia?

From this perspective, I might conclude that Wurtzel’s essay is quite possibly one long rationalisation.  But if it makes her happy, well that’s alright then.  With her essay, she’s written herself into the kind of life that’s right for her.  Personally though, I’d rather be able to travel to Vietnam than sit on a park bench wondering about where to find another place to rent.  Getting the money together from my monotonous and demanding but well-paid job is admittedly a drag, but time in life sometimes has a way of stretching itself out quite generously and there are stories along the way.  Stories about men going to the mines in Mongolia, to Africa and braving the dark heart of New Guinea, scientists on their way to Antarctica, soldiers back from Afghanistan, people with terminal cancer on their last trip, Asian women entrepreneurs, humanitarian refugees arriving speechless and dazed to a strange, new country…

I am in my early fifties, with the spectre of mental illness having blighted the vital early part of my adulthood.  But I recovered – enough to be able to live a fairly normal life with the help of regular medication and psychiatric counselling.  For the rest of my life.  Nothing else works.  At age 25 my flesh became like everybody else’s and by then I did not care about the terribly real dreams, which had mocked, manacled and imprisoned me.  All I wanted was a commitment and engagement with the world of Reality, or else all was lost.  And some backbone.  Alone, friendless and tentatively reconciling with family, looking for a foothold in the bitumen and cracked concrete streets of an indifferent city, my only thought was of practicalities:  to get a job, get a decent place to live and get some education and training to get a well-paid job.

Despite its suffocating frustrations, the full-time 9-5 job meant a lot to me.  A good place to rent and call my home, a regular rhythm to my life, contact with other people and I met the man I eventually married there.  A regular salary also meant being able to afford travel – and so we traveled together, driving and camping around the country, climbing mountains, walking through gorges and exploring deserted, wind-swept coast-lines.  We went overseas – to the UK, to France and Italy wandering through ancient cathedrals and waking up frowzy with uncomfortable sleep in the car, to the glory of Rome’s skyline in the pink-flushed dawn.  We have a daughter.  We have completed university degrees.

I believed this dream of freedom way back then and crashed through a floor in the universe.  Today I scratch out time for writing through the cracks in the day.  I love my husband and our daughter.  If the pieces of my life were all put together, wouldn’t they mean nothing more than a statistic to the casual stranger who does not know the meaning in it like I do?  Isn’t suburban life – the owned home (in our case a two-bedroom unit), the car, the job, the weekly shopping all just a means to be doing the same thing generations before have all done, ie living?  Even though happiness in any situation, can at times be a hard ask.

I have a cousin about my age, never married or had children, who has throughout her adult life resolutely refused to do anything but what she wanted to do.  She announced a resolution one New Year ‘to be true to myself’.  She has never held a job for very long and has spent just about her entire adult life on the dole.  She has developed severe scoliosis that admittedly limits what she can do for a living.  But still, I have a work colleague who is in a wheelchair.

She lives in a large, graceful rented old Queenslander house with a male friend and housemate, in a rural outer suburb in Brisbane and at present is devoting her time to keeping chickens.  She has taken up art, which she is quite talented at and her parents have paid for art college courses she attended.  She tried a university course, insisting on doing the full-time on-campus study and then wondered why everyone was so much younger than her and why no-one wanted to talk to her.  So she packed it in.

I am one of those who just took the damn job.  And later just took the damn meds.

‘…Two roads diverged in a wood and I/I took the road less traveled by…’ says the poet David Frost.  Only ironically the roads turn out to be pretty much equally tough going.  I’m not looking for some kind of moral gratification out of Wurtzel’s story and sincerely believe she is not going to Hell.  She’ll probably be alright, keep moseying on and writing stuff, visiting her therapist, doing her thrice weekly gyratonics and tweeting for a good while yet, despite all her moaning to the contrary.

While I will still be slogging along in the same old mercilessly lacking in opportunities job, unable to get anything I like better, probably retrenched – as my husband already is.  So much as I’d love to take the redundancy, feel it my duty to keep income coming in.  So really, in a way I feel that road is just as hard – just the way Frost said it would be.

Some denizens of the New York City writing scene have written articles of self-righteous mockery on Wurtzel’s piece reminiscent of the bitchery mentioned in Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Winter Trees’.  ‘…Free from abortion or bitchery/These trees seed so easily!…’ I think it goes, thus encapsulating that black New England history of murderous witch-hunting in the evocation of those dark, gnarled and twisted trunks and limbs.  To that I append an extract of a reader’s comment found on one of the blogs:

‘…To me it is the essence of vacuous careerism to admire “a place in the literary scene” as a separate entity from having interesting things to say or an interesting voice to say them in. *That* is a sense of entitlement, to want to be a writer as a middle class lifestyle choice rather than out of some sense of having something unique — a voice, a point of view, a use of language — to contribute in writing…’

Indeed a lot of the animosity toward Wurtzel seems to comes from acute envy at her apparently effortless success, rather than her writing – which Katie Roiphe describes as ‘incoherent babbling’.  It sounds like it’s the fame thing and the busting of little balloons from hard-working middle-class New York scriveners everywhere at the sheer injustice of someone writing ‘…For a while after my first book came out, I went home with a different man every night and did heroin every day—which showed my good sense, because the rest of the time I was completely out of control…’ – and getting paid huge amounts for it.  And a place on the literary scene.  She never had to sales pitch mouse pads!  Oh, the outrage!

But come on, injustice does not stop there.  There are far far worse injustices around to bear such as the idiotically cursory Mars Bar advertisement one of the world’s richest families trots out to market it’s one small, utterly useless, junk food product.  And what about all the beautiful women who wind up in movies and owning diamonds and huge chunks of Californian real estate?  There’s just no point in getting upset about injustice, there’s just too much of it.

I am too much of a certain age to care very much for fame at this stage and have for years pondered reasons as to the point of writing at all – apart from my own crashing lack of courage, a voice or whatever it is that gathers words from the abyss within.  Fame is a nice fantasy, but against the backdrop of a multi-faceted, ever-changing universe seems just as Emily Dickinson mocked, nothing more than ‘a frog bowing/to an admiring bog’.  The important thing is to live.

Lately I’ve been thinking writing is an art and have been fascinated in the possibilities of writing like people paint, taking my note-book and sallying forth to Circular Quay one sunny free day to ride the ferries and wander in the Botanical Gardens to write about the trees, the water in the harbour etc.  But writing also is about sparking ideas and making connections and meaning out of the patterns of reality one perceives and wonders about.

Sometimes I don’t understand something until I write about it and maybe that’s why Plath never commenced a poem with an ending line.  She would sketch out an idea and begin with that to leave open the possibility for discovery.  Then again, I’ll leave you with my favourite quote from the 17th century philosopher John Locke in the opening lines of his essay ‘Concerning Human Understanding’:  ‘…It’s searches after truth are a sort of hawking and hunting, wherein the very pursuit makes a great part of the pleasure.  Every step the mind takes in its progress towards knowledge, makes some discovery, which is not only new, but the best too, for the time at least’…