The House of Tatterdemalion


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Under the Microscope

July 28th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

So in my previous ramble, I talked about this book called Woven into the Earth. I kind of expressed my uncomfortableness with having my work taken under the microscope, as the work of the women of Greenland was literally done. And I also mentioned another book, a kind of mock-up (in more ways than one) of modern America being unburied and discovered at a later time.

Kind of bringing both of those thoughts together, I’ve been thinking a little about what people would find—if they excavated my house, or more broadly, this country. These excavators try to find meaning in every artifact they uncover, to point to the kind of lives and the kind of people who lived there.

For example, they pay special attention to any designs or symbols. And when they find initials, they ponder their meaning—the initials of the owner? Perhaps the suitor who gave it as a gift? The highly skilled craftsman who made it? Perhaps it stood for a meaningful phrase, as R.I.P. stands for Rest In Peace.

And what meaningful things would they find if they dug up our civilization? What would show them what kind of a people we were? The brand names stamped on our every belonging? The little bits of metal we use to start our cars and open our doors? What would they make of the letters or numbers on those oddly shaped things? The songs on our iPods?

I try to think of things in modern houses that get a lot of use, things that are important, things that are personal. Unfortunately most modern houses strike me as rather sterile, and it seems the most important things in the houses are the microwave and the TV. The houses look mostly unlived in, as most people spend their time living elsewhere, and only come home to sleep.

I suppose that might be a bit harsh. I suppose we must all personalize our house in some way, with a few odd mementos. But, I suppose, that is really what I’m noticing—they’re already mementos, and we’ve yet to be dug up. They’re already markers of what was, not things that are sustaining what is.

Before, it is assumed, symbols had meaning. Now, they don’t mean anything, we just like they way they look. Before, the style of dress changed less frequently, a part of the culture. Now, it is virtue to keep up with the changing tides, to be careful not to look “dated” or dressing from the last season. Before, a well made tool would be passed from generation to generation. Now, we dread that our technology is out of date a few months after meaninglessly purchasing it.

People say this is the advance of civilization, but I think it is more accurate to say it is the advance of technology. It’s rather ironic, but our technology has improved to the point we have nothing worth keeping. What items do you use on a regular basis that you would you pass down? Most things are not even made to be durable enough to do so; either it is assumed that you won’t use it enough to make the item capable of sustained use, or it is assumed that it will shortly be superseded by superior technology and you wouldn’t want to keep it anyway.

People speak of heritage, of roots, of getting in touch with the past. But what about the present? Why bother “get in touch” with the people of the past when you are already so distant from the people of the present?

I mean, sure, you hang out with people in the present. And instant message them. And text message them.

Is that all civilization is? Idle chit-chat?

It’s funny, but when I hear the word “civilization”, it makes me think of people helping each other toward the things necessary for life. Or treating each other well. Of giving things to each other. More than that, of loving each other, and sacrificing for each other. A civilization is not about one person—you—but of people: together, not separate. And those things are necessary for people to be together; otherwise, regardless of proximity, each draws into self.

I suppose that may be considered a rather narrow definition of civilization. Certainly it is not the dictionaries understanding of such things.

But I do think that it is a reason many people feel a pull from the past—it was much more personal. I think also that it is a pull for many people toward hand-work as well, whether it be poor or perfect. It can seem to be almost a part of the person, wiggled-loose and given away—even given to you. Into the thing you hold was poured the other person’s time, talent, personality, intentions. It was deliberately made, and deliberately given, with one person in mind.

Perhaps some would say that it is superseded by modern technology. Perhaps. Perhaps the things that are massed produced, coldly and uncaringly, do have greater strength or fineness or precision. But does greater technology have greater value?

And on the flip side of that, does something from the past have greater value? Simply because of nebulous things like “heritage” or “culture” or “roots”? Or is the desire for heritage a desire to belong, to be part of something, to be valued? Even, to be loved? Could that desire even be satiated by the past? Surely, you can see love shown in things of the past, but it’s not directed toward you.

Here is the microscope. And there is the object. Now tell me, which is more important: the manner of how it was constructed, or the manner of why it was constructed?

Posted in Books, Contemplations | 6 Comments »

He said it, not me!

July 26th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

I was bemused—no, bemused is the wrong word. I always thought that “bemused” meant slightly puzzled or surprised amusment, but the dictionaries all seem to think it refers more to being “confused” or “engrossed in thought”. Though MW is willing to admit that it could refer to “wry amusement”, which is a little closer to what I thought.

Anyway, today’s WSJ ran an article by Christina Binkley on the back of the personal journal on using clothes to drive home a point. It wasn’t really anything new to me, but I just wanted to share the final paragraph:

Interestingly, given the level of thought he gives to all of this, Mr. Barrack says he will someimes throw it all out the window if the people he’s dealing with show that they have intellecutal depth. He notes, “Often, the people who are the most impeccable are the least substantive.”

Posted in Articles, WSJ | No Comments »

A Brambly Ramble

July 21st, 2007 by tatterdemalion

This has been a most unsatisfactory week. Among other life-changing crisis’ (crisises? crisi?) is when I discovered a nice, big, fat, thick book I had been reading and enjoying didn’t have a three week lending period, but a two week lending period. Drat! I was just getting to a good part, too. It was called Woven into the Earth, by, um. . .I don’t have the book to check it against. Else Ostergard? I suppose I should look it up. Ha! I remembered right. Here it is. I actually find that the best thing to use Amazon for is to keep feeding its preferences so that it starts recommending you books that you never knew existed but desperately need to read. That’s how I found this book. (And then I inter-library-loaned it. And it was out of system. And they wouldn’t let me renew it. And I think they place a two-month restriction on getting the same book out of system. It’s sad. Really sad. A tragedy, almost, I think.)

Anyway, so this book is about the clothes they found when the excavated old settlements in Greenland. Greenland, they say, was settled during a warmer time, and lasted for only a brief 500 years. And I get all caught up in how sad that is, that a little civilization was just a blip on the timeline, only a mere 500 years. And then I remember that the US is only 230 years old, give or take a few decades depending on who’s counting, and that people think the original pioneers are an ancient people, and that anything from the 1990’s is vintage. And then I go to see if I really remember how old the US is, and then I realize that, duh, it has nothing to do with when the first European settlers/immigration started happening (if only the natives knew about border security), which really started back in the 1600’s, which would be, like, 400 years ago. (Ya think we only have another hundred years to go?) And that if you try to do an internet search on things like that, everyone is more interested in telling you how Columbus wasn’t the first, and the first settlers weren’t either, and besides, real Americans were mound builders and crazy people living in Alaska, or anyway, the land we call Alaska now, even if that wasn’t what it was called then, and if you want to know anything about the Mayflower, all they can tell you is the complete passenger list and genealogy of everyone descended from the Mayflower, well, not the Mayflower, exactly, because that’s a ship, but anyway the descendants of the people who came over on the Mayflower.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah.

So Iceland got over populated, and there wasn’t enough land to support everyone, and so people started dying left and right. Then a bunch of people thought to themselves, “Hey, if we stay here, we’re going to die. If we build a ship and sail off into the sunset, we might die, or we might find some place where we can live and not die. Any chance is better than no chance!” And away they went. And they found Greenland, which was green at the time, but is now quite icy, thank you very much. So was it a weird 500-year warming? Or did we go into an ice age, and now we’re returning to normal temperatures? Was it just the auto-thaw feature of this world? It’s kind of hard to believe in global warming when you’re digging old civilizations out of the ice, you know.

Wait, never mind. Pretend I didn’t say that. I can be plenty controversial all by myself with out getting started on controversial subjects. Let’s not go there.

Anyway, the point is, they buried people in the ground when it was thawed. Then it got cold, and basically put the whole area in the deep freezer. So what garments that were buried are still quite well preserved. This book is all about the clothes.

It’s about what fibers they used, and how they twisted them (s twist or z twist?), and how they wove them, and how they dyed them, and how they sewed them, and lots of other stuff. They scrutinize things so carefully, it makes me feel rather embarrassed. Imagine having your sewing literally taken under the microscope! Other times, the hypothesizing of the writers made me feel embarrassed in a totally different way, a la Motel of Mysteries. There was one point where they were saying (basically; I no longer have the book in my hands to properly quote it), “In this house in one of the back rooms, we found a whole sack full of what looks like the loom weights we found in the other houses. But they can’t be loom weights, because the loom was in the front of the house, and this was a much smaller room with a lower ceiling, and in the back of the house, probably a bedroom. So we don’t know what these things are that look like loom weights, because they’re in the wrong room.”

Anyone who currently has an item misplaced or stored in it’s “improper” room, please raise your hand!

Although it was fascinating reading, it was also rather melancholy. They talk about cracking open the bones to eat the marrow, and using stale urine to treat the fabrics for dying, and taking all the pen cleanings, cutting it into chunks and using it for a fire. I know all these things. I’ve long known that if you’re starving, you’ll love eating the marrow out of bones. I’ve known for ages that urine was frequently used in treating fabric. It’s well known fact that dung has multiple uses. I know the old adage that every animal has “just enough brains to tan it’s own hide”.

But it’s melancholy because it speaks of a daily struggle just to stay alive, to feed and cloth the ones you love. Nowadays, people don’t even know what they’re saying when they say “what do you do for a living?” They think they mean something like “what meaningful contribution do you make for society?” or “what do you do besides eat and sleep?”, but no one really means “what do you do, in order that you may live, and not die?” Nowadays, people consider living not as a privilege or something earned, but as something they have a right to. They don’t believe in the “right to pursue happiness”, but the right to be happy—something they are owed, something they reasonably expect to have. People not only believe they have the right (that is, if need be, everyone else has the responsibility to see to it, if they aren’t) to eat and be clothed, but that they have the right for medical care that someone else pays for. They deserve it. It is only reasonable. It is what life should be like.

But this book speaks of a different type of world, a world of which I sit at the cusp. I can see into it, just as I can see into the world where people clamor for things they think they deserve even if they don’t pay for them.

I don’t provide food for my entire family from the labor of my own hands and the sweat of my own brow. But I’ve made enough meals, worked enough ground, gutted enough animals that I can taste the effort that goes into it. I can guess all too clearly what it is like, the quiet anxiety in the back of the mind as you put the garden in, that it will fail; it won’t produce enough. I know what it is to put away food in hopes of sustaining people in the winter. I know what it is to feed people who are exhausted in every fiber of their body. All too clearly I can feel the hopes of the women, weaving hoods as tight as they might—not out of pride, or amusement, or entertainment, but out of a strong urge to protect. The tighter they weave, the warmer and drier their loved ones will be. Every stroke, every effort, is not some meaningless occupation but provision and care for the men and children and elderly they love. Every action has behind it, driving it on, love for those who will be on the receiving end of those actions.

I can see, in bits in glimpses from my life, my imagination, things I’ve read, things I’ve seen. I can imagine spinning, spinning all the time, hands working independently of anything else. I can see people working together, laughing and coordinated, young with the old. I can see truly working for life.

But only in bits in glimpses.

Because I have yet to see it fail. I have held many children in my arms, but I’ve yet to lay one in the uncaring dirt, dead and no longer anything but an empty body. Sometimes, after reading disturbing things, I have actually dreamed of holding dead children, children I know and love. But I have never felt life stir within me, set my hands to spinning, and then weaving, and then sewing—and knowing with each inch of progress that this work will clothe my child. I have never put hundreds and hundreds of hours into the work of making a child’s clothing—clothing that is meant to carry the child on in life—and then, seeing it have no use but to carry the child in death to the ground.

You see the perfectly preserved clothing for a child, the child itself long gone, and you wonder what the cause was. Did it get too cold? Did it get sick? Did it starve? Did it have a freak accident?

And you know you are no better. If it was you, and your hands—nothing except your hands—could you have kept it from dying? Could you even have kept it alive for so long! Stupid mistakes are so fatal. They say the first person who tried to settle Greenland forgot to gather hay the first summer he was there; and naturally, the animals starved and the people were quick to follow, though I believe it said some were able to escape, to flee back to populated land. Could you learn quick enough, hard enough, fast enough to keep your loved ones alive? Or would you have to watch them die at your failing?

How hard, how hard to live each day as a struggle for life, but how much harder to struggle and fail.

And that is the end of my blitherings for now, though I have a lot more to say on the matter. If I was proper, I’d edit this thing down from a ramble and try to knock it into a shape that vaguely resembles an essay, but the hassling week is not yet over, and I’ve things I must do before I sleep, so I can do things as soon as I rise tomorrow. It’s not quite so brave as struggling for life, but it must be done anyway, and so I go.

Posted in Books, Contemplations, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

I know it's not a hammer, but it's still a tool!

July 14th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

Ok, one verrry last post on Dressaday’s Airplane Rant, and then I’ll stop. Really and truly. Honest.

Unfortunately, something tells me this post of mine is going to be pretty much wind up as a rant itself. Probably because of certain phrases, like this one from the comments from someone by the name of “wampoline”:

I have to say I was appalled at the anonymous toddler mom’s comment on this blog: “I would no sooner dress up for an airplane ride than I would for a road trip in my own personal car.” This idea of the American nuclear family traveling about in its own little bubble, uncaring and oblivious to the world around them, is insular and selfish, to say the least. Just because you have a child doesn’t mean you are not part of a larger society. And just because you are a “mom” doesn’t mean that you are invisible to other people around you. What message about the world and life is that toddler getting from such an attitude?

Sorry to say, but this comment fairly well makes my pressure-weight (you do have a pressure-cooker, right?) rattle like crazy every time I read it. Or, to borrow their language, I’m appalled every time I read this comment. To say the least.

I’m sorry, but I see nothing insular and selfish about giving a child the attitude that there are more important things in life than dressing in such a way as to give as many people as possible the most pleasure of looking at you. Caring about the people around you is not about giving them something nice to look at! And if all the people around you are selfish enough to only want to see things that look pleasing to them, they can just go insulate themselves inside their houses where they don’t have to see anything except those things which agree with their tastes. Just because I’m not invisible doesn’t, ahem, mean I need to be pretty.

Did you get that irony? Did you click that link? That link goes to a Dressaday post where Erin says:

. . .got me thinking about the pervasive idea that women owe it to onlookers to maintain a certain standard of decorativeness.

Now, this may seem strange from someone who writes about pretty dresses (mostly) every day, but: You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”. . .

But what does you-don’t-have-to-be-pretty mean in practical, everyday terms? It means that you don’t have to apologize for wearing things that are held to be “unflattering” or “unfashionable” — especially if, in fact, they make you happy on some level deeper than just being pretty does. So what if your favorite color isn’t a “good” color on you? So what if you are “too fat” (by some arbitrary measure) for a sleeveless top? If you are clean, are covered enough to avoid a citation for public indecency, and have bandaged any open wounds, you can wear any color or style you please, if it makes you happy.

I was going to make a handy prettiness decision tree, but pretty much the end of every branch was a bubble that said “tell complainers to go to h***” so it wasn’t much of a tool.

I apologizeth not.

I know that in her airplane rant, Erin didn’t technically attempt to try to place any more restrictions on airplane clothing than: Don’t stink, don’t hang out of your clothing, and don’t wear any shoes (e.g. flip-flops, etc.) that get in the way of accomplishing a smooth ride for all involved. (All of which, by the by, I agree with.) But Erin does also say:

My take is that people who wear clothes on airplanes that are better suited to washing a series of strangers’ cars at $5/pop have essentially given up all hope that they will ever be the recipient of happy chance. They’ve decided serendipity is not for them, so they’ve forsaken the notion that perhaps one day they may need to make a good first impression on a stranger. . . Before you leave for the airport, look at yourself in the mirror, and think: Could I meet and IMPRESS someone who would change my life while wearing this? And if the answer is “No,” change.

And Erin isn’t the only one who felt this way. As another commenter by the name of Cherie says:

I feel exactly the same way. My favorite Coco Chanel quote comes to mind:

“I don’t understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little – if only out of politeness. And then, you never know, maybe that’s the day she has a date with destiny. And it’s best to be as pretty as possible for destiny.”

Amen to that!


First of all, since when did fate/chance/destiny/serendipity/enchanted-creatures-in-disguise care what people look like? From all my reading of myths, fairy-tales and the Brother’s Grimm, it was never the vain, good-looking people who had any luck. You’d be much safer as a bedraggled, virtuous wood cutter/spinner. Low class people, who probably couldn’t even pass the muster of “clean” and “not stinking”.

Really, though, I’m kind of annoyed by all this dress-to-impress preaching. Everyone always wants to pull out the what-if-you-met-an-old-flame or what-if-you-met-someone-famous scenarios, as though this is such a stunning and brilliant argument we must all fall silent in the face of it. But, if I met an old flame (hypothetically speaking), and the thing he would be most interested in was how I looked, it only goes to show why he would be an old flame. There’s no point in getting too friendly with people who won’t be friends when you look as ugly as a snotty sheep, because some days, you just are, and what’s the use of friends who desert you when you’re having a bad day?

And as for the famous person, I always imagine (pretend?) that they would be rather pleased to be treated like normal person, after having so many screaming masses dogging their footsteps. And, if they would really be more pleased if they were treated as the Sky’s one great gift to the Earth, well then, I don’t think I would really be getting on so well with them anyway. So ix-nay on the dressing to impress them, too.

Really, I don’t understand why this is so difficult for people to grasp: Clothing is a tool.

If the vehicle which most suited your needs was a pick-up truck, would you buy a car simply because the neighbors think it looks better in your driveway?

Please don’t say yes, please don’t say yes, please don’t say yes.

Thank you.

And also, please don’t get started telling me all about what we owe to society. (You know, I almost titled this post “Mother Russia“.) I do understand that there are some burdens to society. After all, that’s why there is such a thing as nudist colonies; they wouldn’t have to go colonize if they weren’t an offense to society. To me, I think society’s rights can be put rather concisely by saying, “Try not to be be an offense to those around you.” This is a long, long, long, long, long way off from having a burden to please those around you, but some people seem to get it all mixed up anyway.

Your clothes are there for your purposes. The clothes are subject to you, not the other way around. What you chose to wear depends on what you desire to accomplish.

There are the “physical” or “practical” goals. Practical goals are those that have your clothes aid you in the activity you are doing, whether by comfort, freedom of movement, protection, camouflage, durability, fast drying, warmth or any other thing.

And there are “emotional” or “psychological” aspects to clothing as well, whether it be in how you perceive yourself (I feel more confidant when I wear these clothes) or how others perceive you (I get better treatment in the stores when I wear these clothes).

But you have to be careful to differentiate between those that say you ought to dress, and how you can dress. Some would say you always ought to wear those clothes, and point to how you are “treated better” when you are wearing them. If that is what you want to do, it is certainly valid. But, you may also choose to continue wearing the clothes that suit you and (a) put up with bad service, (b) use other means of getting good service, (c) shop some place where they’ll treat you respectfully without you having to dress up, or (d) other. (There’s always an “other”, right?)

Clothing is a tool in your hands that you may (or may not) use to influence situations to (hopefully) bring about your desired outcome. In some cases, this is referred to as “dressing appropriately” or “dressing for the situation”. (Note, too, that even that phrasing rules out a single way of dressing.)

An example that springs to my mind is one that is not directly related to clothing per se, but it is related to how we present ourselves/treat others.

There was an occasion where a brother of mine and I had to take pick-up truck after pick-up truck of trash to the dump. My brother called every dump worker we had dealings with either “sir” or “ma’am”. I don’t just mean occasionally, I mean at the end of every sentence.

“Yes, sir!”

“Okay, sir.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“All right, that’s what we’ll do then, sir.”

I had a hard time not cracking up at the juxtaposition. Not that people were rude when they spoke to us. Actually, most of them never spoke. The might grunt, or nod their head, but really? It was obvious that no one liked their job, were bored out of their minds, and quite possibly some of them had never been called “sir” before in their lives. They spend their whole day working with trash, an occupation that is not exactly refined. They kind of slouched along, and avoided eye contact, and did just what they had to do.

So one could quite easily say that such formalities were over-kill or a bit out-dated. Sure, you can never go wrong with good-manners, but when in Rome do as the Romans, right? I mean, it felt a little like wearing spats and a top-hat to go eat at McDonald’s. Some of the modern generation don’t even seem familiar with the usage of “sir”—I overheard some young staffers at Lowe’s trying to get a man’s attention by addressing him as “guy”. And some generations rebel at being called “sir”. “‘Sir’ was my father. I’m not ‘sir.’

But, our multitude of trips did go quite smoothly. Sometimes the workers even went above and beyond the call of duty and helped us unload. Even if they thought us a bit weird, I think it’s safe to say they appreciated being treated with respect and not being taken for granted. Was it necessary to go to such lengths? I don’t believe so. Can acting in such away effect they way you are treated? I believe so.

In the same way, I would say your appearance can have effects, but it’s up to you to decide what you want those effects to be. If you dress to be comfortable, one expects you will be comfortable. If you dress in a crisp, business-like manner, one would expect you would be more likely to be treated in a crisp, business-like manner. If you dress in a casual, approachable manner, one would expect you would be more likely to be treated in a casual, familiar way. If you dressed in such a way as to blend in with those around you, your treatment will likely be the same as those around you. If you dress contrary to those around you, you will certainly get noticed more, though for good or ill depends on quite a lot of things. You have no obligation to dress in such a way as to “impress” someone, but if there is “someone” you wish to impress, you have the right to dress in such a way as you think will accomplish that.

It is not about serendipity, or chance encounters, or obligations to society. It’s not about what you “ought” to wear. It’s a realization that clothing is a tool, physically and psychologically. It is not, however, the tool. Though some may decide it is a powerful tool of communication and learn to use it skillfully, others may find that there are different tools that serve them better, and will not set time to the study of clothing.

Which goes back to that rather dry point: some people just don’t care what they look like. Get over it.

Posted in Contemplations, Fashion | 5 Comments »

The Problem with being verbose. . .

July 14th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

. . .is that, among other things, you get 98% of the way through writing a post, and suddenly discover that you are sick of sitting in front of the monitor, and being still all except for your fingers. Then you have to choices: keep writing, and invariably have a sloppy ending, or stop writing, and have had spent a nice big chunk of time without having actually gotten a post finished. And if you take the second route, then you have to come back to a post that is 98% done and you are already tired of, when your mind has already moved on to other subjects. Endings written in this fashion are rarely satisfactory either.

Yes, my unfinished drafts are beginning to pile up.


Posted in Contemplations, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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