Tuesday, 30 January 2018

On the Care and Feeding of Single People

Lately I came across Aimee Lutkin's excellent essays, "When Can I Say I'll Be Alone Forever" and "I Did Everything You Said and I'm Still Alone", and reading them was an exercise in painful self-recognition that brought tears to my eyes. I could have written them, though not nearly so well. In those two essays, Lutkin nailed two very painful and frustrating facets of being unhappily single: no one who isn't single wants to listen to a single person talk about it or even seems to understand where they're coming from; and a single person can do everything everyone and every advice book suggests and still never find that right person or even a satisfying substitute for a romantic partner.

But my essay isn't going to be an essay on the trials and tribulations of a solitary life, or how to make the best of it or escape it. Single people get lots of that sort of advice, and I think that as someone who, at 44, has been single for basically her entire adult life, that maybe it's time for me to turn the tables. Maybe it's time for me give some advice to partnered people on how to treat the single people in their lives. Because, partnered people, we single people love you, but holy shit you do not get it sometimes. Before anyone gets all "not all partnered people", let me say there are partnered people who don't need advice on what to say or not to say to single people, but there are many who do, because every single "don't" in this article is based on something hurtful or exasperating that at least one well-meaning but clueless partnered person has said to me.

So, if you're partnered up, here are some suggestions on things not to say to the unhappily single people you care about:

1. Don't blithely assure single people that they're going to find someone. Unless you're the only person in human history who can predict the future, you don't know if they will or not, and maybe they won't. Some people never do. It's an empty, baseless reassurance that does nothing to help them cope with the reality that they are currently lonely, and is often used to callously cut off the conversation they're trying to have with you about that loneliness. What you need to do is hear that they are lonely and to try to help them find ways to cope with their solitary walk through life while it lasts and/or to find someone.

Years ago I had a married friend who was struggling with fertility issues and who was anxious that she'd never have children. In the three and a half years it took her to become pregnant, I never once told her, "Don't worry, you'll be able to conceive!" because I had no idea whether she would or not. Instead, I'd remind her that her fertility doctors had said that her and her husbands' chances were good. When she was upset that one option had failed her, I'd tell her to remember that there were still a number of options to work through. Since the process was going to take time, I suggested that she mentally reframe the problem from "Will I ever become a mother?" and "When will I become a mother?" to "How do I want to spend whatever childfree time I have ahead of me before I either have a child or adopt one?", in order to give her more agency over what she felt, because the first two questions were the kind of unanswerable questions that can leave one howling at the moon while the last one was one she could answer, and act on, herself. I also did some googling and reading on the topic to inform myself, and sent her links to essays and articles about infertility that I thought had helpful insights. In short, I put a lot of thought and care in what I said to her, and my suggestions did seem to help her manage her anxiety and make the best of the situation. Meanwhile, all she ever did whenever I tried to talk about my grief over being single (and also childless, like her) was to say things like, "Oh, you'll find someone! You don't believe it but someday you'll see I was right!" and then turn the conversation back towards her own problems. She expected me to listen to her carrying on about her fear that she was infertile before she and her husband had even started trying to conceive, but at the same time she took the attitude that the problem that I'd already been struggling with for years was a non-issue because it was likely to be resolved any minute now. Guess what? She was not right. And not the least bit of help. And shocked and outraged when, after her first child was born, I decided I wasn't interested in keeping in contact with her anymore because our friendship was far too one-sided in general. When a friend is struggling with a problem, you need to hear them and do your reasonable best to help them rather than casually and falsely telling them that it's temporary.

2. Don't tell single people that "having a partner isn't everything" or "you won't be any happier with a partner", or go on about how happy you supposedly were when you were single five or fifteen years ago. People who are unhappily single are lonely and hungry for intimacy and companionship, and you, who regularly enjoy intimacy and companionship and support with your partner and may never even have known what it is to go without it for years, let alone decades, are effectively telling them you think it's a non-issue that they're going without what you're enjoying. You're the equivalent of someone with a mouthful of food and a full plate in front of you and a full-stocked pantry behind you telling someone who has been going hungry for months, years, or even decades that food isn't everything. While it's true that, like food, romantic companionship and physical intimacy aren't everything, you need to remember that it's easy to take it for granted when you're getting plenty of it. You need to understand that romantic companionship and physical intimacy are very basic emotional needs and it's really difficult and painful to go without them on a long-term basis, and you need to be careful not to be dismissive of that pain. After all, if you were so happy when you were single, why didn't you say, "Oh, no thanks, I'm perfectly happy on my own!" when your current partner wanted the two of you to get together? If you think being single is so great, why don't you leave your partner and go be single for the next ten years? If you are not willing to give up what you have in order to be single yourself, don't loftily tell other people that they should be contented to be single. It's going to come across as, "Got mine, fuck you."

3. Don't draw non-existent parallels between your life experience and theirs. If your single friend is single in their thirties or later, don't go on about how you felt about being single when you were 23, and how things worked out great for you and you're sure it will for them too! Being single in mid-life or later is nothing like being single in your early twenties, when there's a much larger dating pool, your friends are also mostly single and childless and have time for you, and you don't have to worry much about your biological clock.

4. Don't tell single people that they should just be happy to have the other good things they have. Sure, your single friends might have a thriving professional career, a good education, a nice house, and the time and money for travel and/or elaborate hobbies, and I'm sure they do appreciate their good fortune and take satisfaction in their accomplishments. But those things aren't a replacement for a relationship, and it's human nature to want a full complement of life's good things. Would you trade your partner and the children you've had with your partner in for any of those things? Would you want to be told that you should just be happy with your partner and children and not want a career or a nice house or a trip too?

5. Don't give pat advice or pep talks that your single friends don't need. If they have a dozen hobbies, don't tell them to get a new hobby. If they're already reasonably active and social, don't tell them they "just need to get out there". If they're reasonably confident about their looks or self-worth, don't butter them up. If your single friend is depressed or never seems to do anything with their spare time but watch TV, then, yes, it's appropriate to gently suggest/facilitate some self-care and new horizons.

6. Don't lecture your single friends because they "don't think anyone's good enough for them". I've had "friends" berate me because I turned down a man who was ten to twenty years older than me, or had substance abuse issues, or was thrice divorced (and blamed everything on his ex-wives), and they were way out of line. Most of the single people I know have very reasonable expectations: we want to date people who are age-appropriate, who have their act together, whom we enjoy being with and are physically attracted to, and who will treat us with care and respect. We might also have a silly little checklist of "nice to haves" (I know I have one that's too embarrassing to share!), but that frivolous checklist will go right out the window if we find someone who really does it for us and meets critical mass on our really important requirements. Telling a single person that they think they're "too good" to go out with someone they don't find attractive or age appropriate or together enough or whom they just don't enjoy being around is obnoxious and inappropriate. You're effectively telling them they don't deserve someone with whom they can be contented.

That's not to say that chronically single people don't sometimes have higher standards than many partnered people. I have noticed that the people I've known who were never single for long, who went easily from one partner to another until one worked long-term, weren't very selective. I'm not saying their standards were too low, but rather that their mindset was different, that they were more willing to try a relationship on for size, or that they were willing to live with certain things that I wouldn't, or that they were the sort of people who meshed with others more easily and didn't need their partner to be as compatible with them as I do. And if that works for them, the more power to them. However, if you are someone who has always found it easy to find a significant other, you may need to realize that sometimes other people are "harder to fit" than you, that this need for high-level compatibility may not be a need they can compromise on, and that it's just as offensive and inappropriate for you to chastise others for their high standards as it would be for them to criticize yours for being too low.

7. Don't take the attitude that partnered people are more together or in any way superior to single people. A friend of mine was once asked at a wedding if she was seeing anyone, and before Lynn could answer, the bride interjected, "Oh no, Lynn hasn't found herself yet," which was so supremely obnoxious that Lynn's first (though suppressed) instinct was to go to the gift table, pick up the beautifully gift-wrapped box containing the blender she'd given the bride, and go home to make herself a margarita. In case this needs saying, a single person can be very self-aware and know exactly what he or she wants out of life, and still never find the right person to be with. While it's certainly true that some single people have personal issues that compromise their ability to form relationships, finding a partner is neither proof of functionality nor a measure of overall success in life. I've known a lot of very abusive, irresponsible, narcissistic, or otherwise dysfunctional partnered people who are too busy controlling their partners or blaming them for everything or desperately clinging to a shitty relationship to acknowledge or work their own issues, or even to figure out what they want to do with their lives in terms of career or other personal goals. And yet so many of these very same people are those who preen themselves on their achievement in being in a relationship, who brandish their partnered status as though it is a proof of superiority, and who condescend to single people. Don't be one of those people.

8. If your partner is away for a few days or weeks, don't carry on about how alooooone you feel to your friend who's been single for years. Seriously. By the same token, if you're thinking of complaining about a lacklustre Valentine's Day present to a friend who received nothing at all for Valentine's Day, maybe think again. Complaining about a very minor issue to someone who's dealing with a comparable issue on a much larger scale is tactless and insensitive.

9. If you are in a happy relationship, please watch the rhapsodizing over how ecstatic you are in your life with your partner. I'm not saying you can't talk about your relationship or happiness at all, and a good friend will always be genuinely happy for your happiness and ready to do a reasonable share of listening to your feelings about your life even when they don't share your good fortune, but please try to be sensitive about it. If you owned a large, beautiful home and your friend lived in a junior one bedroom rental apartment, would you make continually make comments about how much better it is to live in your house than it is to live in some sad rental? On the flip side of this coin, please don't assume that your friend envies your particular partner/relationship. They may not exactly admire your partner or your relationship and be too diplomatic to say so.

10. If you are in an unhappy relationship, don't tell your single friends that they should just be grateful not to be with a bad partner. Yes, you have a problem, but so do they, so don't make it all about you and expect them to be there for you when you're dismissing their issues as being less important or less difficult than yours. I have a close friend whose marriage... isn't good ... and the two of us have been able to support each other through years of her contentious marriage and my loneliness because we both understand that our two different problems are equally heartbreaking and tough to live with, and because we both listen, really listen, to each other and are consequently able to offer apt advice or insights, and to recognize when we have no advice to give, instead of projecting.

11. If your single friends complain about the lack of sex/physical affection, don't tell them to just go out and get laid unless you know they're the type who are fine with hookups. Yes, some people can handle casual sex, but some can't. Some people need to have a sense of genuine connection with another person in order to have any desire to be physically intimate with them, and/or they can't bear being discarded afterwards. It's really insensitive to tell such a person to "get over" such niceties and go bang someone they don't really know or even like much or who is very likely to disappear on them the next day. If we're wired to care about such things, that's how we're wired.

12. If your single friends are anxious that they will never get a chance to have children, or grieving because they know they will not, don't be dismissive. That is one major grief that they are dealing with. Also, don't casually assure them they can have or adopt a child on their own. Single parenthood certainly isn't for everyone, and it's financially impossible for many.

Now that we've more or less covered the "don'ts", here are some "dos":

1. Listen. Don't assume you have the answers to what may be an irresolvable problem. Don't assume that you know how your single friends feel. Just listen to whatever they have to say, and then when you're reasonably sure you understand where they're coming from, you can perhaps trying weighing in with some realistic suggestions or comfort if you can think of any. Yes, it can be depressing to listen to someone talk honestly about how lonely and unhappy they are. But you know what? It can be hard for us to see you enjoying things we don't have and perhaps will never have, and if we rise above that, we deserve to have you do the same for us. The last time I visited a friend and her new baby, I took a handmade gift and a homemade cake, cuddled and fed and admired the baby, joked with my friend's partner, and was interested in a guided tour of the nursery decor. Then when I got home I flung myself across my bed and cried because I'll never have a baby. I'm genuinely happy for my friend, I really enjoy knowing and spoiling her darling little girl, and the contrast between our respective situations hurts me, but I do what I do anyway because that's what a good friend does. If your single friends are there for your happiness in that way even when it's painful for them, be there for them in their loneliness even when it's a downer for you.

2. Make an effort to keep in touch and spend time with your single friends. Part of the reason it's so hard to be single in westernized society is that so many partnered people cocoon into their relationships and don't bother nurturing their friendships with single people. I've had quite a few friends disappear completely on me once they got a partner, only to breeze back into my life once the relationship was over, confidently expecting me to support them through their breakup as though nothing had happened. If you care about your friends and want your friendships to last, find time for them. They won't expect you to have the same amount of time for them as you did when you were single, but you should be fairly reliable about answering phone calls/emails and see them at least occasionally. If you are simply too busy to see them individually, invite them to one of the things you're busy doing, such as having dinner with your family.

3. Introduce your single friends to other people in your life, and include them in any gatherings you host whenever you can. Single people usually need to expand their social circles in order to increase their chances of meeting someone. Do try to avoid inviting a lone single friend to a gathering that's otherwise all couples. Yes, they'll be adults and make the best of it if it happens, but it's not going to be much fun for them to be the only odd one out. It's much more considerate to invite a mix of coupled and single people to your parties -- and will also probably make for a better and livelier party, because people who arrive alone are more motivated to mingle.

4. Try a little matchmaking if you can think of particular single friends who would be a good fit and everyone's up for it. Setting friends up on dates is considerably easier than it used to be now that everyone's used to online dating, and sending both parties photos and online links to give them a sense of whom they're meeting makes the date much less blind and awkward. But don't just throw together any two random single people and expect it to work. Try to match up people who live in the same region, are relatively close in age, and who have similar I.Q.s, tastes, interests, and world views. Don't be pushy about it, or over-involved in the mechanics, or take it personally if the match doesn't happen. If they don't want to meet, or if they did and it didn't work out, you'll need to respect that it's their choice. Do be prepared to try again -- after all, if finding the right person was easy, your friends wouldn't be single. Also, be self-aware about your matchmaking abilities. If every would-be couple you try to set up proves to be mutually repulsed, you may not have the knack of predicting whether two people will prove compatible, or much understanding of what your single friends need in a partner, and it's probably a better idea to host dinner parties or movie nights and hope something eventually gels between some of your assorted single friends.

5. Try to keep gift-giving reasonably even-handed between you and your single friends. If a good friend flew to your destination wedding, spent megabucks on whatever tux or bridesmaid dress your attendants wore, bought you engagement, shower, and wedding presents, and now gives your kids birthday and Christmas presents, maybe you should have more concrete and active plans to balance the scales than entertaining vague notions of someday buying them a beautiful wedding present when/if they ever get married. If, after thinking back over the course of a friendship, you realize that a single friend has been and continues to be much more forthcoming with gifts than you have been, I'd suggest that you take steps to make the situation more equitable. You can create gift-giving opportunities by sometimes marking a milestone in their life with a present: when they finish a degree after years of part-time studies, move to a new home, run a marathon, get a promotion, or finish some important personal project. Or give them a gift because they're feeling down, or just because. By doing this, you're demonstrating that you don't thoughtlessly and selfishly expect them to be the source of a one-way stream of presents because that's "just how it works", and that you believe their lives are as important and worthy of celebration as yours.

Looking back over my dos and don'ts, I see a lot of the advice I've given is simply a matter of being a self-aware and considerate friend, taking the time and making the effort to really see and listen to your friend, and being sensitive to what they need from you. It's what good friends do, whether single or partnered, if we wish to have healthy and lasting friendships. I am sure there are lots of partnered people out there who could come up with their own list of advice for their single friends. But in any case, if you're partnered, thank you for taking the time to read and consider my list, and if you decide to act on some of my advice, your single friends may thank you too.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Pinterest & Me: A Dialogue

Pinterest: Here are 100 new fall outfit ideas for you!

Me: They're all photos of long-legged twentysomething models in oversized tops and/or sweaters, skinny jeans, boots, and a tote bag.

Pinterest: Here are 150 more fall outfits in exactly the same vein for you to copy!

Me: Maybe I'll just start searching for crafting tips instead.

Pinterest: Okay, but I'm going to include some more photos of the oversized top, skinny jeans, boots, and tote bag look in your search results just in case!

Me: You need to learn some self-awareness, Pinterest. I'm going to search for closet organization tips now to help me figure out how to make the most of my 5' x 2.5' bedroom closet.

Pinterest: Here are some articles recommending that you put furniture, rugs, and artwork in your closet for that relaxed, homey, magazine photo shoot feel!

Me: No, I need ideas for how to organize a closet of very modest size, Pinterest. If my closet were big enough to hold freaking furniture and rugs, I wouldn't be asking for help.

Pinterest: Here are some lovely photos of Oprah's closet, which is larger than your bedroom and has custom-built oak cabinetry!

Me: Look, forget I even asked about closet organization tips. I'd like to see some ideas for making simple bead necklaces.

Pinterest: Here's a stunning Art Deco diamond choker!

Me: Oh, I give up. This is like trying to discuss fashion and decorating with Gwyenth Paltrow [navigates away from Pinterest].

Pinterest: Would you like to see some oversized top, skinny jeans and tote bag outfit ideas with *strappy sandals* instead of boots? Or how about 105 ideas for things to do with mason jars combined with self-tanner ads? And I see you pinned a recipe for cinnamon rolls, so here are 200 more nearly identical cinnamon roll recipes that I'm sure you'll be eager to see! Hey, is this thing on?

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Mything Facts: Some Thoughts on Naomi Wolff's "The Beauty Myth"


Yes, I've only gotten around to reading the 1990 opus The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolff, recently. As a feminist I have to say it is definitely worth reading and that I wish I had read it earlier, but as an editor I must say it reads like a PhD thesis that has the potential to be excellent but needs a lot more work. The book is poorly written in a graduate student style (read: dense, clunky prose that's a chore to get through), and Wolff makes a lot of sweeping generalizations and uses statistics with an inexcusable sloppiness. According to her "the majority of middle class women in the United States suffer from some version of anorexia or bulimia"; the actual facts are that anorexia affects 0.9% and bulimia 1.5% of American women at some point in their lifetime. Her predictions for the future are, well, hysterical (i.e., she claims poor women's breasts may be transplanted onto rich women).

Her scathing comments about Retin-A and insistence that is a dangerously untested product aroused in me a guilty consciousness of the prescription tube of Retin-A in my bathroom cabinet. I googled the matter to find that while it is true that there have been no long-term clinical studies done on Retin-A, it has been in widespread use since its invention in 1969 and thus far there is no indication it is not safe for long-term use.

Still, this is an important work, and Wolff's central thesis of an artificial societal ideal of beauty that is being imposed on women in order to keep them poor, shamed, distracted, and powerless is one that should never be allowed to fall off the political progressive's radar. If you haven't read The Beauty Myth and aren't planning to read it, I recommend that you at least check out the GoodReads list of selected quotes from the book.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Cat Who Taught Buddhism


When I first read the 1931 Newbery winner The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, I didn't like it at first, nor even know quite what to make of it. It's a little fable about a poor artist whose housekeeper comes home from the market, not with the needed and expected food, but with a little white cat with yellow and black spots that she has purchased with their last few coins. Over the course of the short story, the artist, the housekeeper, and the cat repeatedly choose to be kind and compassionate towards each other, even when their acts of kindness come at great personal cost. Their loving-kindness ultimately results in a miraculous event, and in material and artistic success for the artist while the cat dies of joy.

It's a story that jars against my worldview and life experience, during which I've learned that, while kindness is indeed an excellent thing, it does have to be balanced by self-preservation, particularly when one is dealing with a narcissist or an abuser and acting with self-sacrificing kindness is a recipe for being further exploited and abused. No miracles or afterlife is ever going to redeem those who have given too much of themselves. And I had to snicker a little at the scene in which the cat catches a bird and then sets it free when it sees the bird's terror and despair, because cats are not only carnivores that would not survive long on a vegetarian diet, but are also one of the few species that really enjoy hunting. (My cat would rather mouse than sleep.) In fairness to the book, the little spotted cat is described as an unusual cat with a remarkable capacity for emotion and empathy.

When I set aside my need for realism, I find things to enjoy about the book. There are no sociopaths or abusers in the tale, which means the characters are able to practice selflessness to their heart's content without anyone taking advantage of it. The story describes the unhurried and mindful process by which the artist works so beautifully that it draws one in. The illustrations, by Lynd Ward, which are also meant to stand in for the work of the artist in the story, are unquestionably lovely. The cat's grief at being excluded from the species of animals allowed to adore the Buddha is palpable, and the resulting change in the Buddhist status quo on cats moving. But I still found it difficult to swallow the cat's death from joy as a satisfying denouement. And I thought Coatsworth really ought have included some sort of preface that provided necessary context and background information for North American readers who know nothing of Buddhism. A little bridge building does make it easier for the uninformed to cross into new territory.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Joy Unsparked: Some Thoughts on Marie Kondo's Thoughts on Tidying Up


Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, has been on my radar for awhile now. It's a New York Times best seller, and has inspired much discussion and both mockery and reorganizational efforts among the citizenry of the internet sites I frequent. I'd even done some KonMari organizing myself after reading about her concept of vertical folding, and was very pleased with its revolutionary effect on my sock and underwear drawers. Seriously, vertical folding (which means folding things into rectangles that will stand upright) is such a great idea. It's extremely space efficient and allows you to see everything in a drawer at a glance. Folding my laundry takes a little more time than it used to, but it's time well spent because I no longer spend any time rooting through the drawers trying to find the right colour socks or underwear. The book does have a reputation for being ridiculously over the top, but I began to wonder if Kondo might have some other great ideas, and decided it was worthwhile to wade through the book's absurdities in order to pan for any other valuable nuggets it might contain.

As I read the book, I kept a notebook handy so that I could keep a list of all the useful new organizational ideas that I came across. But I got to the end the last page of the book without creating a list. Instead, I had notes on things that stood out to me in a negative way. Kondo's modus operandi consisted of principles I've already been living by for years (i.e., organize things one category at a time, prune your belongings down to what you actually need and want and then figure out how to store them rather than the reverse, store items of one kind together, etc.), or concepts I disagreed with (i.e., don't keep anything doesn't "spark joy", get rid of unread books and spare buttons for clothing, empty your handbag every day, talk to your belongings and thank them for their service). The only useful new thing I learned from her work is vertical folding, and I learned that without reading the book. That is very thin pickings for a 200-page book that promised me life-changing magic.

To be fair, I am not the intended audience for the book. Far from being a hoarder or even ever having had a problem with untidiness, I share Kondo's passion for orderliness, for keeping my belongings tidy and readily accessible, and for keeping the total amount of stuff down to what I actually need and use. In my twenties I lived in one 10' x 15' room in a rooming house for almost five years, and at the end of that time I still had a few empty drawers. Though there's always room for improvement and I'm always open to new ideas for how to be better organized, I'm good enough at the job of being neat that friends and acquaintances will often ask me for suggestions on how to keep their space as tidy as I keep mine. However, given that Kondo prides herself on being an expert on being tidy who has been incessantly tidying the spaces around her since kindergarten and says she spends 70% of her life thinking about tidiness, I have to wonder why she didn't have more ninja-level organizational tips to offer me. I suspect that the answer lies in the fact that keeping things tidy isn't rocket science, that it's easy to keep your things tidy if you have only a reasonable amount of it and an average amount of closets, drawers and shelving to keep it in, and that the real issue that most chronically messy people have is simply one of excess, and they often need help working through both the mental and physical aspects of the downsizing process. If you are someone who simply cannot seem to pare down your belongings to what you actually need and use, you may find this book helps you get into a mental zone where that's possible.

Much fun has been made of Kondo's rituals of talking to her belongings and thanking them before she discards or stores them, of how she writes of feeling a connection to them and caring about whether they're happy and comfortable, which can across as silly and even psychologically unhealthy to Westernized people, but her mindset has to be considered within the context of Kondo's devout Shinto beliefs (she spent five years working as a Shinto shrine maiden in her younger days). Her attitude towards her material belongings makes more sense when you understand that it's rooted in the Shinto principle that everything has a soul and deserves to be treated with respect. And then too, I can see value in her ideas even for someone who has never heard of Shinto. Her approach will foster mindfulness, and if you're a hoarder who has a lot of emotional barriers to work through when it comes discarding unneeded things, Kondo's suggestions may give you a shame and guilt-free framework for working through them.

More worrisome is Kondo's references to just how obsessed she is with throwing things out and keeping things tidy, to the point where it seems to have taken over her life, she thinks about tidiness nearly constantly, and she gets very upset if some tiny detail of her environment is not as she wants it, as when she describes herself as being "near tears" because she has to scrub some slime off the bottom of a shampoo bottle. If a friend of mine was showing that level of preoccupation with and unhappiness over something so trivial, I would do my best to persuade her to talk to a therapist about it.

Though Kondo's book is short, it still reads as repetitive and overwritten to the point that I am quite sure I could condense all the really useful information in it into one article. She spends way too much of her total word count telling us how much she helps people and how none of her clients who have "successfully completed" her course have fallen back into their old messy ways. Her wording is suspect (much like those of an addictions counselor would be if he claimed that no addict he's treated who has successfully stopped drinking has gone back to drinking) and I am skeptical, and wonder what objective reportage on her clientele's current habits would reveal. She also goes on ad nauseam about her central mantra: do not keep anything that does not give you a spark of joy. I've heard better and more useful mantras, frankly. My toilet plunger, roll of duct tape, and box of tampons don't give me a spark of joy, but I'll be damned before I throw any of them out. I suppose the ideas is that I'll think about how happy I'll be to have those things on hand when I need them in order to feel the requisite spark of joy, but that makes the decision process more convoluted than it needs to be. I much prefer William Morris's, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful," and my own less graceful maxim, "Decide in specific terms what you need and want, and stick to that."

I find it strange that she says almost nothing about over buying, which is the root cause of much messiness. But then she doesn't seem to object to overconsumption or the waste it causes. She proudly writes (twice!) that she has helped her clients discard over a million items in total, and reassures her readers that if they find they've thrown out something they wanted, they can go buy another. She claims that if a button falls off a shirt, it's a sign that the shirt has reached the end of its life. It makes me cringe when she describes the discarded items as "bags of garbage" when they are almost certainly usable items, makes almost no mention of the possibility of donating the cast offs, and says that on average her single clients will throw out 20 to 30 garbage bags full of stuff each, and a family of three 70 bags. The idea of all this waste, in a world where overconsumption is a threat to our continued survival and the problem of what to do with garbage an ever-growing one, horrifies me. If Kondo must encourage people to throw things out in such a wholesale fashion, couldn't she also encourage them to buy less and to dispose of their discarded items responsibly?

Unlike Kondo, the flip side of my love of orderliness is my hatred of waste, and I believe that the environmentally responsible course of action is to balance the two. For instance, when reorganizing my sock drawer last year, I decided that my ideal sock drawer would contain eight pairs of white or ivory cotton socks, eight pairs of trouser socks in brown or olive green, and eight pairs of hand-knitted wool socks. Right now I have 12-15 pairs of each kind of sock, and my wool socks are commercially made work or hiking socks instead of hand-knitted. I would indeed feel the kind of ease and relief she describes her clients as feeling after a purge if I could get my sock drawer population down to that ideal level... but I'm simply not throwing out my extra existing socks before they're worn out, as that's wasteful. I also mend or darn my socks whenever reasonably possible to extend their usefulness, which I'm sure Kondo would consider the equivalent of prolonging a loved one's mortal agony with life support, but I regret nothing. As long as I don't buy any more socks until they're actually needed, my sock drawer will eventually come to look the way I want it, and reducing by process of attrition rather than by purging means I'm spending less on socks and putting fewer of them into a landfill long-term. I'm doing the same thing with my yarn stash. My ideal stash would fit in a single plastic storage box, as I like having some odds and ends around to use, but don't like too much sitting about waiting to be used as that fusses me. I've made a concerted effort to be more disciplined about how much I bought (no more impulse buys of yarn I have vague intentions of using "someday"), and to use up what I had on hand. Two years ago, I had four bags and four boxes of yarn on hand; I now have one bag and four boxes. I expect it'll take another two or three years for me to get my stash down to the size I want it. This is fine with me, as it means that yarn is going to be turned into useful items rather than possibly winding up in a landfill as it might even if I took it to a thrift shop, and also that I'll be buying less yarn long-term. The textile industry is very bad for the environment.

Not that I'm not willing to discard things that don't meet my standard of usefulness. One day last February I was getting ready to go out somewhere and got frustrated because none of the five or six lipsticks in my makeup case went with the clothes I was wearing. While en route to my destination, I did some thinking about what shades of lipstick I would need to have in order to have one to go with every possible outfit in my wardrobe, and decided I should have four: red, bronze, berry/plum, and coral/orange. When I got home, I tested my theory by thumbing through my closet and drawers (i.e., thinking, "yes, red with this sweater, plum with this dress, coral with this top..."), and then I turned to my existing lipstick collection. I had a coral lipstick and a berry lipstick that I liked, so they stayed. I got rid of the others: the unflattering pinks and purples that had been freebies and had never suited me, the broken old one, the orange/red one that was relatively new and expensive but that made me look as though I'd been dining with Hannibal Lecter. Then I bought a new red lipstick and a bronze lipstick, selecting each shade with great care to make sure they suited me. I've been living with these four lipsticks for some months now and I'm happy with my lipstick strategy. It's one little aspect of my life that's all sorted out. I always have a suitable and flattering lipstick to wear, regardless of what clothes I choose. I don't waste time opening lipsticks and trying to figure out which to wear as it's easy to decide on the right one and to remember which of the four is which (they all have different cases). There's more space in my makeup case. I'll save shopping time and money long-term because I am never tempted to buy new lipsticks when I know I have all the lipstick I need. I wouldn't recommend my particular lipstick rule to anyone as it wouldn't work for anyone but me (i.e., other women might prefer to have different lipstick colours, more or less lipstick colours, or no lipstick at all), but I do recommend that anyone who's trying to get reorganized use that basic principle: decide exactly and specifically what you need, and then by a combination of responsible purging, wearing things out and using them up, and mindful shopping, work towards a state of affairs in which you have just that.

Everyone's comfort level with stuff is different. My mother says my living room is "so full", my sister says it looks "half-decorated", and I think it's just right. I think that's partly why Kondo's book has met with a lot of hostility: everyone has a different benchmark and they really don't like the idea of anyone trying to reset it.

But despite the fact that this book seems to have helped some people, I don't think I'd recommend Marie Kondo's book to anyone. There must be better, more helpful organizational how-to books out there. For that matter, I'd question whether anyone who is struggling with this issue needs an organizing how-to book at all, when there is so much information and advice available online, and what they might need is, in more extreme cases, therapy and medication, or in most cases, the help of a tactful and better organized friend, or simply time to consider the problem and then do what is necessary to resolve it. The buying of a how-to book on how to tidy up might only prove a way to postpone actually dealing with the issue, and become, ironically, part of the problem it was supposed to correct. It amuses me to wonder, how many copies of this bestselling book are sitting about in an overstuffed home, unread?

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Some False and Broken Notes



The 1929 Newbery Medal Award Winner, The Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly, which (as you would expect from the title) is set in Kraków, is based upon a centuries-old Kraków tradition, and an accompanying legend. In Kraków, beginning at the stroke of each hour, a trumpeter plays a 5-note tune called the Hejnal (you can hear it here) out of each of the four windows of the tallest tower in St-Mary's Church tower. It's also traditional to end the Hejnal on a broken note. Kelly claims in the prologue to his novel that this tradition was created after a 1241 invasion of Kraków, during which the trumpeter faithfully stayed at his post to play the Hejnal but was shot through by an arrow before he could finish. It's a colourful story, but there isn't any real evidence that it's true. Kelly's version of this legend was the first to be written down. According to Wikipedia, there is an 1861 account of invading Tatars and a sentry who sounded the alarm, but this account does not mention the sentry's death. One trumpeter is known to have died while on duty and the broken note tradition may have originally been a tribute to him, but that was in 1901 and the trumpeter died of natural causes. It's unclear whether Kelly was misinformed (at the time of writing The Trumpeter of Krakow he did not yet speak Polish well), whether he combined or confused the two stories, or whether he was simply the first to record an actual legend.

All this aside, The Trumpeter of Krakow, set in 1461, is the story of a young trumpeter, Joseph Charnetski, who used the Hejnal to sound another alarm. It isn't a bad story. It has a decent plot, seems to be reasonably well-researched as to its period detail, and is a rather entertaining adventure story about a family sworn to protect the (fictional) Great Tarnov Crystal, and the villain and the alchemist who are determined to get their hands on it. It also has a certain frustrating woodenness to its characters and dialogue that keep it from being an excellent book. The characters are sketched in a few simplistic lines, especially in the case of the female characters. Joseph's father is honourable and brave, his mother is pious and gentle (and isn't even given a name of her own), and Joseph is a less-self-assured version of his father. Elzbietka, a young friend of Joseph, is kind and in need of a mother. Joseph's mother obliging steps up for this role and the two of them rush improbably into each others' arms the minute they meet. I will give Kelly some credit for having given Elzbietka a part to play in the story's action and for also having her question why, if learning Latin (as Joseph does) is such an excellent thing, it is not for women as well as men.

Kelly also used his characters' looks to define their personalities in a way that was common in fiction until mid-twentieth century or so -- one often reads about a "noble" or "refined" features in old novels. The Charnetskis are described as having honest or pleasant faces, and this is how Kelly describes Peter, the book's villain:

It was the face, however, that betrayed the soul beneath. It was a dark, oval, wicked face--the eyes were greenish and narrow and the eyebrow line above them ran straight across the bridge of the nose, giving the effect of a monkey rather than a man. One cheek was marked with a buttonlike scar, the scar of the button plague that is so common in the lands east of the Volga, or even the Dnieper, and marks the bearer as a Tartar or a Cossack or a Mongal. The ears were low set and ugly. The mouth looked like a slit that the boys make in the pumpkins they carry on the eve of the Allhallows. Above the mouth was a cropped mustache which hung down at the ends and straggled into a scanty beard.

Subtle, huh? Using one's character's appearance as barometer to their level of refinement or morality is a literary trope that may have had its origin in the pseudoscience of phrenology, and that, thankfully, has fallen out of fashion now. It's a nonsensical notion, and there's surely enough lookism in the world without our having to go to the extent of considering anyone's looks indicative of goodness or evilness.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Lindy West and Radical Goodness


I first became aware of Lindy West via Twitter several years back because my friends would often retweet some of her bon mots. I followed her myself after checking out her page, and the finesse burns West serves to the idiots who troll her made me reconsider my own online policy of not bothering to engage with anyone who didn't seem worth talking to. Then I began to read the columns she writes for The Guardian, and I admired her grasp of social issues and the way she consistently looks beyond individual bad behaviour and into the possible causes and solutions of the larger cultural problems they symptomize. In her September 2015 "The 'Dear Fat People' video is tired, cruel and lazy – but I still fight for the woman who made it" piece, she told the "Dear Fat People" YouTuber, "I fight for you in your capacity as a complex, fully formed human being with the right to autonomy over your body, even if that body gets fat." In "Now Roosh V and his band of sad men in dark rooms know how it feels to be bombarded with bile", a February 2016 piece written after Roosh V, a self-styled "pickup artist" who posts photos of himself standing by expensive cars and brandishing fistfuls of cash, and who with the help of his online minions has been doxxing and harassing women (including Lindy West) for years, was himself doxxed by the internet vigilante group Anonymous and revealed to be living in his mother's basement by the Daily Mail, West wrote that she took little pleasure in the blowback Roosh was facing, because "I want actual change, not whack-a-mole with a grandiose troll." She's a better person than I am by far. My reaction to Roosh V's outing was more along the lines of a tweet I saw that said, "I want to fly around the world and systematically arrange floodlights so 'ROOSH LIVES IN HIS MOM'S BASEMENT LOL' is visible from space," and any Guardian essay I'd have written on the topic would have mentioned that the photos of Roosh at his mother's door show him in a sweat-stained t-shirt.

When I saw West's tweets about her forthcoming first book, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, I was quick to put a library hold on it, and very eager to read it. I thought there was a good chance it would be one of those consciousness-expanding reads that permanently changed the way I saw the world. It wasn't, but then few books are, and then too as a feminist who is fairly well-informed about most of the issues West writes about, I am among the converted rather than among those for whom her perspective would be new or challenging. For me, reading Shrill was much less a revolutionary reading experience than one of deep recognition.

In a book that's half memoir and half polemic, West writes about growing up in a society that indicated in so many cruel ways that she should not be taking up space or expect to be a success or to be loved or even treated with basic respect because she was "a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard, administered by men", and about her journey towards confidence, towards not only owning the space she occupies but enlarging her sphere until she became a force for helping others reclaim theirs. It's a journey I recognize because it's so similar to the one I've made myself. The abuse I experienced growing up destroyed the sense of self-worth I needed to combat it, to protect myself from further bad treatment at the hands of others, and even to live my life with any real enjoyment, and I was a long time acquiring a sort of hothouse confidence and learning how to fight the instinctive reaction that if someone treated me like shit, it must be because I am shit. As I read Shrill I kept thinking of a minor but telling incident from when I was 21. One summer day I got on a TTC bus and sat down near a couple of boys in their late teens. One of them said, "What about...?" and inclined his head towards me. The other made a disgusted face and snorted, "No!" I'm 42 now, and if something like that happened to me these days, I'd tell the boys that if they don't learn to treat women with more respect, they are going to be virgins until they die, and then move to another seat, but at 21 I had no defenses against that kind of garbage, and I just sat where I was and felt terrible.

West writes about growing up fat in a world where being fat is considered "not only as aesthetically objectionable, but also as a moral failing", about the painful shyness it created in her, about the lack of media representation for fat girls (she provides a scraped-from-the bottom-of-the-barrel list that includes Miss Piggy and Lady Cluck from Disney's Robin Hood), about how she stopped doing ordinary things like going swimming or hiking with her friends, about being so revolted by her own menstruation cycle that she could never bear to tell her mother she was running out of tampons, about the men who wanted to have sex with her but didn't want to be seen in public with her. Then she writes about becoming a woman who decided that, screw it, she was valuable and that she was damn well going to not only wear crop tops and bathing suits but also write and publish a piece about being fat illustrated with a full-length picture of herself and call out not only the guy next to her on a plane trip for being a dick but also her boss (who was, by the way, Dan Savage) for the "obesity epidemic" pieces he was publishing. It's glorious and inspiring, and I love the fact that what proved to be West's salvation, and her prescription for anyone who's uncomfortable with their own or anyone else's fatness, is so simple and down-to-earth: look at pictures of fat people online until you get over it.

But it wasn't as though West's acquired confidence broke down all barriers and made her bulletproof. Her chapter on what it's like to fly when you don't fit into the airplane seats made me first want to shed a few tears for her and then force every airline executive in the world to read it. She continues to face obstacles and to receive bad treatment from others, she writes about it all and about the systemic misogyny it stems from... and then she faces a barrage of online and offline harassment for it. But she pushes back against that too and she's had the satisfaction of seeing a resulting change not only in some of the individuals she interacted with but also in the larger cultural milieu. Dan Savage changed the way he wrote about fat people. One of her most abusive trolls (he set up sock puppet Twitter account for West's father, who had very recently died) actually backed down and apologized to her after reading an essay she had written about how his specific behaviour made her feel, and he didn't stop with only an apology, but also changed his own life. Twitter's CEO told his employees that they needed to get serious about preventing abuse on their platform. Some of the comics she's criticized for misogyny have started to rethink the kind of rape jokes they make.

Shrill isn't a landmark book, but it is a very worthwhile one that should be read and discussed, as the documented lived experiences of all marginalized people should be. We'll never improve this society of ours until we start really listening to those who are most affected by its failings. The man who is now West's husband told her that during their first moments of real connection, "I started to realize that you weren't just funny--I'd always thought you were funny--but that you might be a really, really radically good person." He was absolutely right, and I can't be thankful enough that Lindy West's particular kind of radical goodness, with its unflinching honesty, compassion and respect for humanity, will be shining a light on and before us all for many years to come.