I had two revelations in Buenos Aires last year. One concerned knickers, the other make-up.
Despite my mature years I am, as I've remarked before, a cosmetics novice.
In my teens, once I could escape my mother's oversight, I plastered on foundation, white lipstick, and all manner of eye make-up, including blue shadow, thick black liner and false lashes. Yes, I'm sure I looked awful. But it didn't matter much because in my early 20s I dispensed with the whole make-yourself-pretty-for-the-boys routine when I discovered feminism. Or it discovered me.
For the next couple of decades I wore no make-up at all. Not a skerrick. Until a doomed love affair made me reach in desperation for Shiseido tinted lip gloss and Dove SP15 tinted moisturiser. I felt glam with a subtle shine on my lips, and liked the way the moisturiser took the shine off my nose without caking me in gunk, while also protecting me from the worst of the sun.
A few years more and I had graduated - or been lured, if you like - into real lipstick. Just once - when I had to do an onstage gig under strong lights - I bought and applied some Revlon foundation. Otherwise I stuck to the Dove, which I still buy in the supermarket.
Then in the last two years tango has enticed me once more into eye make-up, though thankfully to nothing like the extent that I slapped it on in my youth - mascara and, from time to time for special occasions, subtle liner and real grown-up foundation. If I suffered the odd zit I would dob on a spot of extra foundation and hope for the best.
Until S demonstrated, as we getting ready to go out to a milonga one evening, the wondrous powers of concealer.
So the other day I bought some in the Kirk's sale - Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Ultra Lift and Firm Concealer, reduced from around $45 to $29. (The EA website claims it was "Voted Best Undereye Concealer in Parents Magazine's first-ever 'Mom Knows Best Beauty Awards'!". I'm glad I didn't know that before it reached my bathroom shelf or it probably wouldn't have got that far.)
I'm almost sure that the sweet-faced young woman who used my own face as the stuff's selling point had perfect dewy skin. Sadly she'd smothered it under layers of pancake. Why do young women so often do this? Because, like me when I was that age, they don't feel good enough as they are. It's sad. And it's also a horrible commercial conspiracy, and not for a second do I regret the years I did without it, and faced the world naked.
Anyway, she sat me on the stool, made a few dabs under my eyes, worked at them conscientiously with a nifty little soft-bristled brush and handed me a mirror.
My wow alarmed her - for a moment she thought I didn't like what I saw. I was so smooth, so blemish-free. I handed over my EFTPOS card.
I will never apply the stuff as liberally as she did. Admirable though the effect was, it was an effect only, it wasn't me. They might not be de rigeur but I like my age-related freckles. And I don't want to get to the stage where I can't go out of the house without concealing them. I can't say I've been aware of the product's vaunted "ultra lift" properties, but I'll keep an eye out.
I wanted to conclude this blog with a close-up of skin bearing too great a load of make-up. There are plenty of images on the internet of people we're meant to have heard of caught wearing no make-up, but I failed to find even one example of what I was looking for. Significant? I think so.
You wanted me to wrap up with the knicker revelation, though, didn't you. Sorry. Another time.
The attentive reader (yes, that's you) might find this picture familiar. That's because it first appeared more than a year ago here, when I wrote at length about how this jacket went missing somewhere between Sydney and Guangzhou, and how it finally turned up again at J's and S's address in Kunming.
I concluded that blog by saying, "Now all I have to do is get my jacket from Kunming to Wellington." It took another year, but the other day it arrived home, accompanied by a cashmere scarf.
S and J were in Kunming when it came to light in Guangzhou, and managed to persuade the airline to send it to them. They didn't like to risk posting it from Guangzhou, though, so they waited until they'd shifted to Shanghai. The jacket went with them.
J asked me whether to send it to my street address or my mail box. I said my mail box, much safer, so he wrote my street address on the package! And S finally sent it in mid-September.
There was no sign of it when I got back from Buenos Aires at the end of November - how long could a sea voyage take?
J gave me the tracking number and just before Christmas I made inquiries at a post office. I was given an Auckland phone number, but in the end it was J who called it, just after Christmas. To be told that the package was now on its way back to Shanghai!
Whoever it was claimed to have got it as far as my front door, but since there was no one home to sign for it, left a card and took it away again. God knows what happened to the card.
By mid-January it was back in Shanghai, anyway. S discovered she couldn't claim it and re-address it without turning up in person with ID, and they were now in Guangzhou. What it took was a helpful friend with photocopies of S's ID, and a post office official willing to bend the rules a little.
This time it came by air. And arrived within 10 days.
Yes, the gap it left in my wardrobe has long since closed over. But I was still ridiculously glad to see it. And the scarf, chosen for me by S's mother in Urumqui, is lovely. Thank you, everyone.
Since I clicked on the cover of Knit Your Own Royal Wedding, a couple of weeks ago, Amazon has pigeonholed me as a knitting fanatic avid to hear of any and all new books on the subject. Here's the latest.
I remember on some sitcom or other, a man newly out of a long marriage asking a buddy, "Whatever happened to pubic hair?" I seem to be equally out of touch. Whatever happened to jersies and scarves? Does everyone now knit ... these things?
Whatever they are, one thing's for sure - romantic they ain't!
All right, I'll stop now. But where are the instructions for knitting a boyfriend?
As befitted a respectable middle-middle-class English family, my brothers and I were kitted out almost entirely by Marks and Spencer - from underwear to gaberdine coats and everything in between (except shoes, which usually came from Clarks). There was, as my mother well knew, no arguing with the quality. Most of what she bought me there I would outgrow before it wore out.
By my mid-teens, of course, I had outgrown the store and its stolidly conservative wares in another way.
Occasional trips back to England had me cruising M&S, and buying the odd item of underwear, but mainly for old time's sake. Nothing else of theirs appealed one bit.
Then in 2006 I went to visit E, and finding myself in need of a pair of jeans, bought some black ones for 20 pounds at an M&S sale. They were extra-long, bootleg, super-stretchy, with a lowish, but not excruicatingly low, rise. I didn't care for the naff red embroidery - a couple of linked hearts - on the back pocket but it only took 10 minutes to unpick.
This morning, six years later, I put them on again. At some point between then and now, I took them in down the side to make them skinnies. But they're still long and stretchy, and still black - the most comfortable, good-looking jeans I own.
What on earth will I do if they ever wear out? Am I too young to hope that I'll wear out first?
A friend once made a New Year's resolution not to eat spaghetti while reading borrowed books. I was impressed by her altruism.
Most of us know not to fork up pasta - especially the tomato-y sort - without covering up a white top, but it's a constant irritation to me how often I try to get away with cleaning my teeth - with an enthusiastic electric toothbrush, what's more - while wearing black.
More garments than I like to think of have been ruined this way. You can read here how to remove toothpaste stains, but I can't say I'm optimistic about my latest folly. Will I ever learn?
The most famous stained garment in history would have to be Monica Lewinsky's blue dress. But quite a few celebrities have also made besmirched public appearances. Here, for instance, is another blue dress:
The attention-hungry Ms Hilton seems entirely unaware of those impressive oil-stains on the front of the nice frock she's showing off.
I'm ashamed to say that I found her posing thus on this site, which features a section called Meanest Celebrity photos. And I suppose they are, from the celebrities' point of view. But having - I confess - flicked through the gallery of 150 pics, I decided they served the public good. Gorgeous images of models and movie stars are responsible for so much female (and possibly male) misery, that to see Elle Macpherson with a whopping cold sore, Liam Neeson's embarassing wet spot, and any number of stars suffering zits, cellulite and bad hair days, often while picking their noses, is a breath of fresh air. What do you know, people - they're actually human.
The cover of Knit Your Own Royal Wedding, which you can order here if you don't believe me.
Or, of course, if you actually want step-by-step instructions for whipping up Prince William, Kate Middleton, the Queen, Prince Harry, Prince Charles, Camilla, the Archbishop, and a corgi in wool, as well as vital accessories like "top hat and tails, different styles of hats, a Union Jack, bunting, and more".
What more could there possibly be?
Ah, yes - "an illustrated foldout of Westminster Abbey" in the back cover pocket, and beautifully illustrated pages telling the story of William and Kate's courtship.
Surely this breaks in virgin handcrafts territory. Knitting-wise, the sky is now the limit. We can look forward to Knit Your Own Execution (with its sly postmodern reference to Madam Defarge), Knit Your Own Home (the perfect gift for that stay-at-home parent longing to move up the property ladder), and Knit Your Own Overseas Trip for those who can't stand foreign food and plumbing, ill-formed queues and people who know how to speak English but pretend they can't.
Blanket Man is dead. He earned his moniker from 10 years' almost daily appearances in Courtney Place, Wellington, wrapped in his grimy blanket. On warmer days, he stripped that off and lounged in his loincloth as if he were on the Riviera.
I wasn't one of those who admired his "iconic" status: it did little to disguise his miserable situation. He always seemed a profoundly sad man, reduced as he was to acting out others' romanticised perceptions of him.
Today's Dominion Post quotes Stephanie McIntyre of the Wellington Community Ministry as saying she thinks Ben Hana had begun to believe the mythology, that it gave him an identity. He had been offered housing and other support, but chosen not to accept it: "He latched on to that whole notion of a public persona and that became more important to him than being well."
Others, so the paper reports, deplored him for his brazenly dishevelled appearance and minimal clothing. But surely both reactions - glorification and contempt - had little to do with the man beneath the blanket.
Once upon a time, Ben Hana was a married father of four with a regular job. But a series of personal disasters, including killing a friend while drink-driving, took him to rock bottom. He racked up a pages-long list of convictions, the result of one being a judge's order to wear underpants at all times.
He was last seen the day before he died, waving cheerfully to passing motorists from the steps of the hospital, clad for his last public appearance in a hospital gown.
The lawyer of that sex- and power-crazed old goat Dominque Strauss-Kahn is quoted in today's Dominion Post as declaring that his client couldn't have known he was "sleeping with" prostitutes at his swinger parties since "the women were all naked at the time". This, apparently, amounts to a defence. Here is a picture of the man who only just missed his shot at the French presidency:
Generally speaking women (and maybe men too, for all I know) have only two reasons for having sex. One is fun; the other, gain ... of some kind or other.
Do Strauss-Kahn and his lawyer seriously expect us to believe that any woman would have anonymous sex with him for the first reason?
Another, more intesting question, though, lies behind this quote - one that pertains to style. Would Strauss-Kahn - or anyone else - have been be able to accurately identify the women as sex workers if they had been fully dressed?
Once upon a time - which is to say, when I was in my teens and twenties - quite possibly yes. Women and girls took great care not to look look "cheap". Or worse, perhaps, expensive.
Social pressure, mediated by mothers, grannies, peers, movies and magazines - not to mention men - ensured most of us kept our skirt-hems down and our necklines up, spurned "too much" make-up, too much flash and sparkle. The implication was that if we didn't, we deserved what we got. Just as we did if we stood around "too long" in a public place.
It's some time since all that changed, at least, in countries other than France and possibly Iran.
Is this woman, for instance, a sex worker?
Or this one?
Or this one?
A young woman going out in public in the dress shown in the first picture would once have been labelled - in fact, condemned as - a whore. This one is a model who appears in the online catalogue of Supre, a clothing store that targets teenagers and pre-teens. The dress is available in size XXXS. This supposes a woman whose bust measures 31.5 inches/80cms, her waist 23 inches/58.4cms, and her hips 33.5 inches/85.1cms. In other words a little girl.
The young woman in the second picture is Californian women's studies graduate Natalie Dylan. To pay for her masters degree, she auctioned off her virginity to the highest bidder. The Huffington Post reported that she - or should that be, it - went for several million. Is she a prostitute, and does that cute frock tell us all we need to know?
Meanwhile, back in the antipodes, a young unnamed Northland student has (according to today's UK Daily Telegraph) adopted Natalie's brand of market enthusiasm by hocking herself off to the highest bidder.
The paper says she's posted the following message on the auction site: "I have accepted an offer in excess of $NZ45,000, which is way beyond what I dreamed." She said more than 30,000 people had looked at her ad, and 1200 submitted offers.
The story also quotes Catherine Healey of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. She urges the 19-year-old to contact the organisation for "practical information" on the realities of sex work. I don't know if Catherine Healey is still a sex worker, but she was once. That's her in the third picture. Did you know how she earned her living as soon as you saw that black jersey?
It takes a special character to shine in the traditionally lowly status of toilet attendant. Cecilia, a permanent fixture of the Nuevo Chique Ladies, has it in spades, and her grace and good cheer seem indefatigable.
I photographed her in November, but this picture taken by Cheryl Brown earlier in 2011 is much better. Cecilia had her birthday some time in October/November and was called into the dancehall to be presented with a cake, a chorus of Happy Birthday and much fond applause.
Like many of her colleagues, Cecilia supplies all manner of cosmetics, hair products, perfumes, brushes and combs. And though the more squeamish might flinch from applying a lipstick that's already met a hunded mouths, most would do so in a make-up emergency rather than go naked into the milonga.
The Ladies is tiny - a space two steps wide between the stalls and the handbasins. The few chairs are usually occupied, so women wobble on one foot as they change shoes, dress and undress, and tweak hair and make-up, as well as pee. And when she's not keeping the toilets and handbasins clean, Cecilia looks on from her chair near the door.
Locals greet her with kisses and a que tal? and often proceed to talk at length with her about life, the universe and everything. But that doesn't mean they fail to drop a few pesos in her saucer on the way out.
Tourists aren't quite so sure what to make of her. But two visits are enough to establish her charm, generosity and all-round goodwill.
Although I don't know Cecilia's surname, I was suprised to find no trace of her on the internet in connection with Nuevo Chique. She's the star of these encargadas de banio. I never met another so personable - or with such a good memory for faces.
Here's another encargada - this time, at the El Aranque milonga. I'm afraid don't know either of her names.
I'm a writer. Sometimes I write fiction and sometimes I'd rather do something else, like earn money, travel or dance tango. Whatever I do, I never stop looking. So this blog is about looking to write, writing to see, and seeing to think. I was once the kind of feminist who believed it was wrong to delight in such things. Now I'm the kind of feminist who doesn't believe that at all. I will never, as Linda Grant puts it, go beige into that good night.