Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts

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.

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, 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.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Some Vintages Age Better Than Others


A few months ago I came across a copy of Especially Father, by Gladys Bagg Taber, in Value Village. The book, written in 1948, seemed to bear promise of being a type of book I quite like. Though I don’t know exactly how I should classify or even describe this kind of book. Probably the best description is that of “vintage memoir”. I’m thinking of books like Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough; We Shook the Family Tree by Hildegarde Dolson; and E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, though Diary of a Provincial Lady is autobiographical fiction rather than a memoir. These books and the events they describe all belong to the first half of the twentieth century, and are all in a literary vein one doesn’t come across these days: erudite yet understated; delicately witty; self-deprecating yet dignified. And, if you can get your hands on an older edition, the yellowed pages with their well-aged scent and old-fashioned typeface adds to the feeling that one is stepping back in time.

Upon reading, Especially Father did prove to be this kind of book written by this kind of author. Taber penned more than fifty books, besides publishing a great deal of work in the periodicals of her day, and seems to be best known for her books about Stillmeadow, the seventeenth-century Connecticut farmhouse she bought and restored. I’ve made a note to myself to get my hands on one of these books sometime. But I expect to enjoy those books more than I liked Especially Father.

The book that Taber meant to commemorate her father, Rufus Bagg, does not do so in the way she intended. It’s evident that she loved her father and found that the excitement and hubbub he generated compensated for his shortcomings, but lacking her affection, and perhaps also her level of tolerance, I can’t agree. Good and even admirable characteristics her father had, yes. His level of physical energy seems to have been titanic. His knowledge of geology was profound and immense – as was to have been expected of a mining engineer and college geology professor – and he could discourse about it in a fascinating, poetic way. And he seems to have loved his wife and daughter deeply. But he also seems to have been an utterly unbearable man. Taber details his exploits: how she and her mother nearly starved in a rented room in Mexico because her father went off on an expedition to the mines in the mountains, supposedly for only a few days, and didn't return for a month (during which time Taber's mother ran out of money); how her father beat little Gladys black and blue for telling a neighbour where they hid their spare house key; how he left her in a store one morning and never remembered her until he returned home at suppertime; how he got up by six every morning and made such a racket no one else in the house could sleep; how he fought bitterly with the college librarian over a seventy-five-cent fine for months; how he browbeat his older brother into giving up his courtship of the girl who became Taber’s mother so he could court her himself; how he thought the only problem with Mexico was “all those foreigners” who lived in it; how he didn’t believe in red lights and never stopped for them; how he never understood any viewpoint that differed from his own and was convinced his own opinions were infallible.

Taber evidently wants her readers to admire her father as much as she did, but the really admirable character in this memoir is Taber’s mother. Without her mother’s sympathy, reason, and astute management, Taber’s childhood would have been a miserable experience. It would have taken a rare woman to put up with her father’s pigheadedness, and Grace Bagg seems to have had both the depth of sweetness and the strength of character to not only put up with him but to be happy with her lot – and to be the woman every other woman in town came to with her troubles. Taber writes that her father took her mother entirely for granted, that he expected her to do all the housekeeping, give the best parties of any wife on the faculty, feed six extra dinner guests at no notice, edit his papers, compose his speeches, find anything he had mislaid, and account for every penny he ever gave her. Many married women would have been expected to do the same at the turn of the twentieth century, but surely most would have received in return at least the occasional compliment or some consideration from their husbands. Grace Bagg did not, and she seems to have remained remarkably unresentful through it all, though Taber remembers how her mother would sew furiously late into the night when really perturbed. Grace Bagg did occasionally do battle with her husband to get what she really wanted – and win, too, because she had an understanding of his nature and therefore an ability to use his weaknesses to her advantage that he lacked – but generally she seems to have been able to take most of her husband’s behaviour in her stride and to see the never ending turmoil he caused as an adventure and a joke. But even while I marvelled at Grace Bagg’s spirit and fortitude, there was no getting away from the fact that she should not have been treated in such a way as to make such heights of self-abnegation necessary.

Taber does seem to have been fully aware of her mother’s worth (as she wrote, “Mamma was a genius”) and she is also cognizant of her father’s faults, but she could certainly have gone several steps further towards understanding the extent of his shortcomings. I found the pride not only Rufus Bagg but Taber herself showed over being a descendant of Cotton Mather to be appalling. Taber wrote:

I thought of the first ancestor, back there in 1632, setting his firm unfrightened foot on the new and terrible terrain.

It was his crest, and he was perfectly confident that he was virtuous and noble. And if the goodly man cheated the Indians, it was always for their own good, or for the glory of God. If he persecuted the witches, he was saving their souls or defending the innocent wretches they were casting spells upon. Sin was his mortal enemy, compromise a word he never knew.


Sure Mather treated the native people and their rights like nuisances to be swept aside, and presided over the cruel executions of innocent people, justifying it on the basis of an imaginary threat. But hey, he meant well, and compromising is for the weak and afraid!

Virtue, like everything else, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The blame or praise we attach to an action or characteristic is wholly dependent on its context. Compromise can be good or bad; persistence can be constructive or destructive. Good intentions need to be coupled with good judgment and competence if they are to lead to positive results. Anyone with a passing knowledge of history or politics knows what happens when those in power refuse to compromise or to be subject to checks and balances and ride roughshod over the rights and opinions of others to achieve their own ends.

Taber opens the book by telling us in a prologue that she came to write this book about her family because she did not want her memories, especially those about her father, to be lost, and ends it by describing a Bagg family reunion and commenting,

The sight of these, the last of the Puritans, standing there gave me an uneasy sense of weakness in my own generation…. If the time came for Communism to sweep the world, Father would face a firing squad still shouting, God bless the Republican Party.


This may have a fine rhetorical ring to it, but the truth is, far from sweeping the world, Communism was to collapse of its own accord, while the American Republican party has become a corrupted and destructive force. And none of Taber’s fond nostalgia about her father stands up to deconstruction much better than that example. Surely there’s no benefit in glorifying the kind of pig-headedness and complete lack of consideration for others that Rufus Bagg showed. We’ve seen what happened when the U.S. was governed for eight years by a man who prided himself on his own ignorance, who said that we were “with him or against him”, who said that dictatorship would be fine “if he was the dictator”.

Especially Father is a mildly enjoyable little memoir, but the reactionary, overly simplistic, and reverent tone of it did it no favours whatsoever.