Thursday 6 July 2023

May & June 2023 Book Report


The Other Mrs., by Mary Kubica. This thriller opened well, with the set up of Sadie and Will Foust and their two young sons having recently moved from Chicago to a small island community in Maine to look after Will's recently orphaned and troubled sixteen-year-old niece, and also to get a fresh start for their family for darkly hinted at Other Reasons, when their neighbour is found murdered. The tension built, the plot thickened, I was turning pages in an enjoyable feeling of suspense... until it all fell apart on an improbable denouement. I can't talk about why the resolution was ridiculous without spoiling the plot for anyone who might want to read the book, which I don't want to do, so I'll just say that I do wish authors who write this kind of potboiler wouldn't resort to tired TV movie-type tropes about mental health issues so often.  

Gentleman Jack: The Life and Times of Anne Lister, by Anne Choma. This past March I watched the HBO television series Gentleman Jack, which is based on the life of Regency landowner, industrialist, voracious learner, intrepid traveller, trailblazing lesbian, and exhaustive diarist Anne Lister, and it was one of the best period pieces I have ever seen. Suranne Jones plays Anne Lister like a force of nature, and I loved that Anne wasn't presented as a saint or anachronistically progressive, and that her sister Marian was an intelligent and insightful person whom Anne underestimated. The costuming and sets were excellent, and it's always nice to see Gemma Jones as well as some other other British actors I recognized from other shows. In June I watched the series again, and when I found myself wanting to know more about Anne Lister, I read the book the show was based on. I rather wished I'd read one of the other autobiographies in existence on Lister instead, as this book was primarily concerned with Anne Lister's courtship of Ann Walker just as the show was, and I wanted a fuller picture of her life, but it is a very good book in its own right. It gives an unflinching portrait of Anne who, fascinating as she is, would not have been an easy person to live with, or even the most likable person. Extraordinarily intelligent and gifted people with whirlwind levels of physical and mental energy do tend to leave the rest of us battening down our hatches as best we can, and though Anne was at least a century and a half ahead of her time in her own understanding and acceptance of a sexuality she didn't even have terms to describe, and in her determination to build a life with a committed partner, she was well behind it, even medieval, in her outlook on other sociopolitical issues, such as that of labour rights.   

Now, just a note about the status of these book reports. Obviously, I am very late with this book report, and I've only read two books in the last two months (that I remember -- I have a dim yet horrible feeling that I read one or two others and just didn't document my thoughts at the time and now can't remember them), but there's a reason for that. Since mid-May I've been working on writing a novel, and it is absorbing not only my writing time, but my reading time as well, as I need to do research for it. It'll be some months before that will change, so I won't make any empty promises about future book reports for the rest of this year. However, I am hoping to get time to work on the list of essays I've been wanting to write, so there may some things in the pipeline for this blog.  


Thursday 4 May 2023

April 2023 Book Report

The Mistress of Nothing
, by Kate Pullinger. I recently picked up a copy of this novel in a Salvation Army thrift shop largely because I thought that the Lady Duff-Gordon in it was Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon (1863-1935), fashion designer and sister to Elinor Glyn. When I got the book home and began to read it, I soon realized that it was set in the 1860s and that the terminally ill and middle-aged Lady Duff-Gordon who figures in it could not possibly be the same Lady Duff-Gordon who had survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and that the novel's Lady Duff-Gordon was in fact Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon (1821-1869), writer and translator. Oops. In my defense, I'll just say that the two women's names are damn similar and also I was misled by the illustration on the cover of the edition I bought, which depicts a woman in a dress and hat that is far more in the style of the 1910s than in that of the 1860s. But it was a happy mistake, for I enjoyed this book. Its lush and evocative descriptions of Egypt left me pining to visit Egypt, its portrayal of the fascinating Lady Duff-Gordon led me to google to learn more about her, and its tale of the personal growth and difficult life path of its determined heroine and narrator Sally Naldrett (lady's maid to Lady Duff-Gordon) had me avidly turning pages to find out what happened next. Because Sally's ultimate fate is unknown, Pullinger created an ending for her that was as good as was realistically possible in order to wrap up her novel on a positive note. I was invested enough in Sally that I found myself painfully hoping that she did actually have a reasonably decent life after being summarily dismissed from Lady Duff-Gordon's service, that though she was up against a cruelly repressive socioeconomic system and her employer's situational narcissism, she was ultimately able to become mistress of herself.      

The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. I've been working professionally as a print/ text editor since I graduated from Centennial College's Book and Magazine Publishing program in the spring of 1994, and I'm afraid that I'm a far less accomplished and skilled editor and writer than one of my nearly three decades of experience ought to be. Language usage and the craft of writing is incredibly complex and always evolving and I wish so much that I had realized at 20 that I should be making a deliberate continuous study of it. Instead, I stocked my bookshelves with texts on editing and writing that I vaguely intended to read at some point, as though I were setting a stage for playacting at being an editor rather than genuinely being one. When I recently took my thrift shop copy of The Elements of Style from the bookcase that holds my collection of professional reference texts, I found a sales receipt in the book from the Goodwill on St. Clair Avenue West, dated July 29, 2000. It had taken me nearly 23 years to actually read the book after buying it.  

Having finally justified my $0.75 investment in a copy of this book, I can definitely understand why The Elements of Style is considered a classic and essential editing and writing text. I was relieved to discover that I did know most of the rules and principles laid down in it, and to find I had enough knowledge and experience to know that some of its dictums are outmoded, such as the default use of singular male pronouns. I enjoyed its bracing emphasis on plain style and standard language usage, which have long been my own decided preferences. E.B.'s White's advice that one should write in whatever style comes naturally, and then work to correct and refine it, rather than affecting someone else's style, was exactly what I needed to hear, given my anxiety over my lack of a distinctive writing style. And I decided I must keep an eye out for the most recent, or 4th, edition of The Elements of Style, as an upgrade from the 2nd/1972 edition I have, and once I get it, read it.     

Henrietta's House (AKA The Blue Hills), by Elizabeth Goudge. I first discovered Elizabeth Goudge when I read The Little White Horse at 11 or 12. I've been reading and collecting as many of her books as I could ever since, an effort that has gone slowly because many of her books are out of print. To date, I have 15 of her titles and there are perhaps another 17 that I want. None have had quite the charm for me that The Little White Horse has, but there is a gentle, leisurely, contemplative quality to all of them that I love. As with a Quaker meeting, the atmosphere of Goudge's novels draws me in and compels my irritable, impatient, sardonic brain to settle down and truly experience the quiet beauty of it. So few things have that effect on me that I value it highly when I find it. When I came across a copy of Henrietta's House recently in a Salvation Army thrift shop, I pounced on it immediately. The story is a near fairy tale, as Goudge's books tend to be (even her most realistic novels have myths and legends woven into them). A party of assorted people in assorted vehicles set out for a picnic in the hills to celebrate the birthday of a young boy among them, become separated enroute, have various improbable adventures, and then they all get something they wished for, most notably ten-year-old Henrietta, whose fondest wish was a house of her own in which all of those she most loved could gather. It's a slight but appealing story.  

Lovesick: A Memoir of Searching for Mr. Good Enough, by Frances Kuffel. This is Kuffel's third book, all of them memoirs. She's a very talented writer whose polished, painfully lucid prose is a pleasure to read and who refuses to reduce the messy complexity of her struggles with her weight and her romantic relationships to a tidy narrative. I related all too well to her account of trying to find someone compatible and willing to be in a ongoing romantic relationship with her, and of how she has to turn to her web of friends for some of the emotional needs partnered people usually turn to each other for. God, the slings and arrows and the sheer grind of meeting guy after guy via dating websites, of analyzing each guy's presentation of himself to see if he's a good fit or even safe to meet in person, of  assessing the developing situation (do I like him? is this working? does this have potential?), of enduring one disappointment after another, of ultimately never having anything work out, even when there's no actual mistreatment involved, and there often is. Lovesick is an entertaining book, but I wonder if it wouldn't be a better read for someone who has no clue what internet dating can be like as opposed to someone who's had to do too much of it. The former type of person would hopefully find it a valuable and empathy-generating education, whereas I, who am in the latter category, can only summon a weary, "I hear you, sister."

 The Yoga Bible, by Christina Brown. To be strictly accurate, I should specify that rather than actually reading this entire book, I read the introductory parts at the front of this book, paged through the bewildering array of poses, skimmed the pages on yoga practice for various medical ailments, and read the final pages on meditation and various types of yoga. I had just bought a secondhand copy of this book online and I wanted to have a quick look through it and find out what information it contained. I hope to get to know it more thoroughly as time goes by, as I'd like to begin daily yoga practice. I shall be 50 in August and I could definitely stand to develop my core strength and improve my flexibility. The Yoga Bible seems to be a good reference book on yoga poses, and a decent primer on yoga's characteristics and benefits, but it didn't have any suggested practice routines as I had hoped. I'll have to seek out a seven-day beginner yoga routine elsewhere, or perhaps devise a research-based yoga plan of my own.   

Ruby and Roland, by Faith Sullivan. Some years ago I picked up a copy of Sullivan's The Cape Ann at a thrift shop, and it was so good that she's been one of my favourite authors ever since. Ruby and Roland is another of her Harvester books, all of which I own, but though it's a pleasant read it's not the best of them. The main character, Ruby Drake, born in 1898, has an idyllic childhood that comes to an abrupt end at 12, when her parents go on a sleigh ride one starry winter night and freeze to death after their horse goes lame. Ruby is first taken in by a German couple and then, when they suddenly inherit an estate in Bavaria (yes, seriously), she becomes hired girl to Emma and Henry Schoonover, farmers who live just outside Harvester, Minnesota. Ruby falls in love with her married neighbour Roland, and then develops a friendship of sorts with his wife Dora, who (much like her literary namesake Dora Spenlow Copperfield) is childishly unprepared for life as a farmer's wife, as well as devastated by the loss of her baby and by her parents' disownment of her, as they disapproved of her choice of husband. Ruby then has to remove herself from that combustible situation and try her luck back in her home town. 

This book's prose is as beautiful as Sullivan's always is, but I found so much of the plotting of this book wildly improbable. Ruby is implausibly precocious and mature, and she has an uncanny way of landing on her feet that is not particularly realistic for a penniless orphan in the early twentieth century. I don't want to spoil the book's ending for anyone who might read it, so I'll just say I don't think that spending one's entire life cherishing a brief, youthful love is a literary trope that seems to be an extremely rare occurrence in real life. All the long-term single people I know, including me, are alone not because they're enshrining a lost love in their hearts but because they never met anyone else. It also seems to unlikely to me that Ruby would choose to live the rest of her life at such close quarters with a daily reminder of her secret past, especially when it might blow up in her face at any moment.    

L.M. Montgomery and Gender, edited by E. Holly Pike and Laura M. Robinson. I've been a L.M. Montgomery fan since I first read Anne of Green Gables at the age of eight or nine, and have what I've recently begun to think of as an L.M. Montgomery library, consisting of copies of all her novels, nearly all her short story collections, her complete journals so far as they've been published, several biographies, and critical works about Montgomery and her work. I even have a copy of Aunt Maud's Recipe Book, a collection of Montgomery's favourite (and slightly modernized) recipes. As I get older I find myself more interested in Montgomery's journals than her fiction, but when I do read her fiction I read it in a very different way from how I read it as a child, a teenager, or even as a young woman. I recently bought this book new (a brand new book is a very rare indulgence for me!), and it was an interesting read and a worthy addition to my Montgomery library, giving me some new insights into Montgomery's fiction, which I know nearly by heart. I had never considered that The Blue Castle had so many fairy tale elements (i.e., a hostile family, a magical transformation, a prince in disguise, and even a high-heeled shoe as a plot point), or just how female-centric Montgomery's fiction could be (i.e., after Matthew's death in Anne of Green Gables, Anne takes his place as co-head of the household, becoming a manager, bread winner, and even (in the sequel) a co-parent with Marilla after they adopt Davy and Dora Keith together).  

Tuesday 4 April 2023

March 2023 Book Report

In an effort to get myself blogging more regularly, I've decided to start posting a sort of monthly book report, which will consist of my thoughts on the list of books I read during the previous month. The idea is that I might sometimes have enough thoughts on some of the books for them to become a full-fledged book review, but we'll see. At any rate, here is my book report for March 2023.  

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, by Corey Robin. This book was more theoretical than I had expected, and made me feel like a lightweight. I know embarrassingly little about classical political theory. However, I found Robin’s ideas about conservatism as a reactionary modern phenomenon interesting (not that this was new idea to me), and I quite enjoyed his scathing chapters on Ayn Rand, Antonin Scalia, and Donald Trump. “Saint Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin, and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both.” Hee!

A Complete Guide to Manicure & Pedicure, by Leigh Toselli. I bought a copy of this book for my grandniece Cauliflower in 2022, and then another for myself in January of this year, thinking it was time that I upgraded my own very basic manicure skills. The book seems to be a good basic primer on manicure and pedicure techniques, and I discovered I'd been doing a number of things wrong, sigh. And I concluded that while I am certain I will never venture into any sort of fake nails, I am definitely willing to make a foray into what has been for me the previously unknown French manicure territory.   

Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy. I'm not one to enjoy novels in which the characters insist on making one fatefully foolish life choice after another, but though this is one of those, and it all ends in horrific tragedy, I still found it worth reading. Hardy makes it very clear that Victorian society weighed like a ton of bricks on those who flouted its conventions regarding marriage, both inwardly (in terms of social conditioning) and outwardly (in terms of social consequences), and that Jude and the love of his life Sue were up against crushing impediments in their efforts to find happiness together. When I considered the times in my life that I've made self-destructive choices because false views I'd been schooled in growing up had me convinced that I was doing the right thing morally, I realized how facile it was of me to judge the characters from my vantage point of a 21st century perspective on marriage. I did enjoy Arabella's character, as her briskly opportunistic take on the institution of marriage was often darkly hilarious, if more than a little sociopathic.             

The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity, by Melanie Greenberg. I've never been good at dealing with stress, and right now I face a legal situation that I very much need to get moving on but has me petrified like a deer in headlights, so it seemed like a good idea to read a book on this topic. I didn't learn much that was new from this one -- I've figured out the general principles of dealing with stress on my own over the years -- but reviewing them and learning more about the scientific basis for them didn't hurt.   

Wednesday 18 August 2021

This Meme Is Not What It Seems

I've seen this photo floating around on the internet and popping up in my Facebook timeline. It's the kind of thing anti-vaxxers are posting and pointing to as a proof/argument that vaccines are not necessary and should be a personal choice. I'd like to take a critical look at this photo and its claims, and lay out the case for why this photo is neither proof of nor argument for anything.
In the photo, we see a woman in scrubs holding a sign that says,


I was unable to find a source for this photo or any reliable information about it. We don't know this woman's name or where she works or what her professional role or credentials are; therefore there's no way to verify that anything on her placard is true, or that the text on it hasn't been photoshopped. She's wearing scrubs, but that doesn't mean she's a medical professional. She might be someone who simply dressed up in scrubs to create an anti-vax meme. She might be a veterinary assistant. She might be some sort of medical professional, but not one that works directly with COVID patients. After all, she doesn't claim she provides medical care for COVID patients, only that she's "face to face" with them. She might a hospital employee who does intake, and only sees COVID patients "face to face" from behind a plexiglass shield and in full PPE, in which case the shield and PPE would have protected her, not her immune system.
Even is she is a bona fide healthcare worker who works directly with COVID patients, we can't be sure she never got COVID. Was she tested for it? How often was she tested for it? Even if she never actually became ill, unless she is tested very regularly, it could be that she got it, remained asymptomatic, and infected others without knowing it.
Then there's the claim that she's been face to face with COVID patients for "573 days". Dating back from today, August 18th, 2021, 573 days ago was January 23, 2020. COVID existed at that time, but the pandemic wasn't declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization until March 11, 2020, and there weren't that many known cases in late January 2020. Where does this woman work that she has been "face to face" with COVID patients ever single day since January 23, 2020, or even before that, since this photo was posted earlier than today? And is she really claiming that she's never taken a single day off in 573 days? That claim, at least, is almost certainly not true, so we know this woman lied about, or at least exaggerated, one of her claims, and if she lied about or exaggerated that claim, what else might she have lied about or exaggerated?
Even if everything this woman's sign says is true, even if she is someone who has been face to face with COVID patients every single day since before the pandemic really began, and has been tested regularly and has test results proving that she never got COVID, her experience is still not proof that vaccines are not necessary. She is one person. One person who has had the extraordinary luck to avoid infection without being vaccinated does not constitute proof that vaccinations are unnecessary. We need to look at the bigger picture, at the infection rate among the people who are at risk for COVID19.
Let's look at how it's affecting health care workers. According to the Ontario Hospital Association, there have been 23,772 health sector workers infected with COVID19 in Ontario alone to date. I've been unable to find up-to-date numbers on how many Ontarian or Canadian health care workers have died of COVID19 to date, but according to the Canadian Institute for Health, as of February 25, 2021, 24 Canadian health workers had died of COVID19. Those 24 workers were unlikely to have been vaccinated by February 2021, so their immune systems and even their PPE didn't protect them, just as they haven't protected the countless number of healthcare workers who would have become infected and died worldwide. The experience of one unvaccinated healthcare worker who escaped infection (and again, we don't know if she is a healthcare worker, or actually had contact with COVID patients, or wasn't infected) does not prove that vaccines aren't necessary when we know for a fact that so many, many unvaccinated health care workers have become infected and even died of COVID worldwide.
This woman is one person whose claims cannot be verified, and it would be foolish of anyone to rely on her opinion. If you had cancer, and you visited 99 actual doctors who gave you nearly identical advice about how your cancer should be treated, and then you saw a Facebook photo meme of someone claiming to be a doctor holding a sign with advice on how to treat cancer that's completely at odds with what the 99 doctors say, would you follow the advice on the sign written by someone who may not even be a doctor and whose advice may not even have been tested on anyone, or would you follow the medical advice from actual doctors who have been known to successfully treat cancer patients?
The science, the statistics, are clear. Everyone who can be vaccinated should be, and healthcare workers, who are especially high risk, should be vaccinated or they should find something else to do for a living. They have no right to risk other people's lives out of ignorance and carelessness, and frankly, I would never want medical care from anyone who is supposedly medically trained and experienced and is still so pig-headed, so ignorant, and so irresponsible as to deny accepted science and objective reality regarding vaccines. If this woman is indeed any kind of healthcare worker, and this message is actually one she intended to send and not photoshopped, I hope she gets fired for having disseminated dangerous misinformation, as what she is doing is a violation of professional medical ethics.

Sunday 9 May 2021

On Productivity

I'm a long-time fan of The Onion, and some of its articles are special favourites and a never-failing source of amusement to me, generally because of their almost painful acuity as to human foibles and frailties. "Plan To Straighten Out Entire Life During Weeklong Vacation Yields Mixed Results", originally published in 2001, is one such article. It's a hilarious blow-by-blow account of how 31-year-old data entry operator Derek Olsson intended to get his life organized during his one-week vacation from work, but instead pissed away the entire week, getting next to nothing done. 

Back in 2008, while on a week's visit to a friend in Raleigh, North Carolina, I showed him the article "Local Girlfriend Always Wants to Do Stuff". Prior to my flight to Raleigh, I had emailed Tim a carefully researched list of sightseeing activities we might enjoy, and during the visit peppered him with requests to do this or that, while he generally preferred that we just hang out in his apartment, enjoying each other's company, so the article was very much our bag. He laughed out loud a few times while he read it, and "Local House Guest Always Wants to Do Stuff" became a running joke between us for the rest of my stay with him. I thought he'd enjoy the Derek Olsson article too, so I found it for him and left him to read it on his laptop at his desk while I did needlework on the couch. Tim read the second article in silence, without so much as a smile, and then shut down his laptop. I said, "You didn't laugh... didn't you think it was funny?" He said, morosely, "It's too close to home." It is indeed, and I've reread it perhaps half a dozen times since then, each time wincing over how well I relate to Derek's hapless efforts to take charge of his life.

Productivity and self-discipline are things I struggle with. I have chronic fatigue issues, and on the average day I have about four good hours when I have the physical and mental stamina to actively work and focus on whatever tasks I have to do, which is a very significant handicap, but even before I developed chronic fatigue in 2007 at the age of 33, I had a tendency to muddle through life in an introspective fog, hampered by a number of bad mental habits and dysfunctional behaviours. I could do quite well at things when I was able to focus and put the effort in, but my performance has always been, to put it euphemistically, uneven. I'm the kind of person who has to use every organizational trick and scheme in the book to get herself moving on anything. So, as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how to get more done with limited resources, I've written this post as a way to explore some of my ideas about productivity, and how to improve it, as much for my benefit as anyone else's, and using our executive function challenged friend Derek Olsson as a case study. 

According to the article, Derek's planned tasks for his time off included finishing unpacking the remaining boxes from his move into his apartment three years before, buying his two months' married friends Steve and Kim a wedding present, paying his gas bill, having his car serviced, picking up a new computer desk from Staples (and, presumably, assembling it as well), and "a thorough cleaning of his apartment, laundry, re-ordering of checks, buying a bigger CD shelf, signing up for a T'ai Chi course, cashing in a large jar of loose change at the bank, updating his resume, looking for a new job, and 'figuring out the whole Melanie thing'." It seems to me that, unless his apartment was an utter disaster, he could have gotten all those things and quite a bit more done in nine days if he'd planned better and put in a reasonable level of effort each day. 

I think productivity can be boiled down to certain key components, and here's my working list of those components:

  • Know what you want to do.
  • Devise a plan/strategies for how you will do it.
  • Do what works for you.
  • Keep track of your data and organize your space.
  • Try journaling.
  • Have realistic expectations and a healthy locus of control.
  • Don't get sidetracked.
  • Engage with and enjoy whatever you do.
  • Talk yourself through frustration and discouragement.

Now, let's look at how these tactics actually work.

Know What You Want to Do and How You Will Do It 

When you want to get stuff done, it's important to know both what you want to do and to have a plan and strategies for how you'll do it. Some tasks require pre-planning type steps, such as making appointments and doing internet research, that you'll need to do in advance. You'll need to figure out what to prioritize and what to postpone if necessary, and to plan to do the preparatory things first when tasks are interdependent. 

Derek's first mistake was that he didn't know what he was going to do. He made an incomplete to do list on Saturday night. He ought to have made a comprehensive to do list on Friday night, if not sooner, and then he ought to have done some thinking about how he could accomplish as much of his list as possible during his nine office-free days. For instance, he might have decided that, over the next week, he would spend the mornings working on tasks at home, his afternoons running errands, and his evenings relaxing or with his girlfriend, friends, or family, or perhaps doing the kind of low-key things he could do sitting on the couch, such as internet research or working on his resume. He might have decided he would begin his housekeeping efforts by first unpacking the boxes in the basement and putting everything away, then doing a preliminary household tidy with the goal of making sure everything was at least in whatever room it was supposed to be in, and with that done, he could then clean and organize one room each morning. Or he could decide to keep working one process at a time: to first unpack, then tidy, then clean the bathroom, then dust/clean surfaces, then vacuum, then begin organizing one compartment at a time (i.e., closets, drawers, cupboards, the fridge, etc.), or one category of his belongings at a time (i.e., clothes, documents, kitchen equipment, etc.). 

I'm not a big believer in multi-tasking, but there are some tasks that can be done in tandem. Laundry is a task that combines well with others as it has lots of down time, so Derek could have combined that with his unpacking, or, if he doesn't have ensuite laundry in his rental apartment, he could have taken his planner or device with him to whatever laundry facility he uses on Friday evening, and worked on getting organized and making his plans while the washer and dryer were running.  

He might also have made a separate list of errands he had to do, and then figured out how he could do them as efficiently as possible by subdividing them. For instance, he could have figured out which things he could buy at the mall, and gotten them all on one trip. If he had to take his car to be serviced, he might have planned to take it to a garage within walking distance of a mall, so that he could do his shopping while his vehicle was being worked on. He could plan to reduce the amount of running around he had to do by doing online research/shopping or making phone calls, and he should have made whatever appointments he needed to make very early in the week, if not before then. My dermatologist is always booked up months in advance, so, as I see him twice a year, each time I visit him, I make the next semi-annual appointment before I leave the office, which saves me time and the hassle of not being able to get an appointment slot that works best for my schedule. 

Once Derek got his place cleaned and organized, it would have been a good idea for him to create a housekeeping plan that he could use to make sure that he can keep his living quarters in shape and his life in order going forward so that he never again had to use his one-week vacation to play catch up. I have a housekeeping schedule myself. I'm not one of those people who can just automatically do housekeeping things as they need to be done, with the exception of tidying, which comes very naturally to me. I'll notice that something needs to be cleaned, and think, "Oh, I don't feel like doing that now," or "I don't have time to do that now." When I have a housekeeping schedule, my mindset becomes, "This needs to be done, and this is the time I've set aside to do it." 

I dust and clean the bathroom on Mondays, vacuum on Tuesdays, grocery shop on Fridays, and cook for the week and do laundry on Saturday mornings. Sunday is my day to work on me -- I'll do my nails, and my hair if it needs it, and do things like polishing my shoes. On Wednesdays and Thursdays I do the "extra" tasks that don't need to be done every week, such as scrubbing the kitchen floor, or cleaning out a closet, or working in the garden if it's summer. Some weeks there's nothing extra that needs doing on Wednesday or Thursday, which means I get the time to do something else. If I stick to this schedule, I always have nice nails, clean clothes, food in the fridge, and a house that's clean and orderly enough for unexpected company, and it doesn't feel arduous at all. 

I'm not recommending my plan as some universally suitable housekeeping regimen, but rather as an example. I batch cook once a week because I don't like cooking and absolutely cannot stand having to cook every day, and because it's very cost efficient. I live alone and don't mind eating the same thing for several days in a row. Batch cooking every Saturday morning therefore works really well for me, but it wouldn't work for someone with a family, or who is a foodie. It can take awhile to develop a housekeeping plan that works for you, but I think it's a good idea for most of us.

Then too, such routines can have a very stabilizing influence on us. I have found that, while the pandemic took its toll on me and made me somewhat less productive, my basic daily routines have mostly held firm despite the extra stress. 

As to Derek's plan to decide what his future was with his girlfriend Melanie during his time off, all I have to say regarding that is that, given that Derek apparently never spent any of his one-week vacation with his girlfriend, his feelings and intentions towards her have manifested themselves and it's time for him to bail -- if she doesn't dump him overboard first.  

Do What Works For You

When organizing your life, it is crucial that you use whatever systems and techniques work best for you. Organizing strategies are like diets: however much everyone else might laud them, if you can't stick to them, or if you find them onerous and painful, they are useless to you. I'm always trying new hacks and methods and routines to get more done, and probably nineteen out of twenty of those new ideas fall by the wayside because they don't work for me, or stop working once the novelty wears off. But perhaps 5% of the time whatever new strategy I've tried works so well for me that it soon ceases to be a rule and simply becomes how I function. I will never find some magic formulation that will make me the super producer I want to be, but given that I sometimes find techniques that help a little, it's worthwhile for me to keep trying new ones. 

I read years ago that one should make one's to do list for a day the evening before, because one's unconscious mind will work on it overnight. When I tried it, it did seem to work, so I've been doing it ever since. I find I often wake up with ideas for how to do something on that day's list better or more efficiently. I'm not ever conscious of getting these ideas -- they are simply in my mind when I awake, when they weren't there the night before. In another example, I aim to be up, breakfasted, dressed, and to start work by 9 in the morning, and I used to stop for lunch at 12, try to go back to work at 1, work until 6, and then have supper, exercise after supper, and have the rest of the evening free. (That is, theoretically. The reality is I often have to stop work somewhere in there to go back to bed for several hours, and some mornings I oversleep for hours.) That 3-hour morning was usually fine, but I was finding my 5-hour afternoon such a slog that it basically wasn't happening, and I was always too hungry to wait until 6 for my supper. So, several years ago I decided I would change my routine, and stop for lunch at 1 p.m. instead of noon, which divided my working day neatly into two 4-hour segments: 9-1, and 2-6. It worked very well, the only drawback being that my cat was Very Outraged by the fact that I'd also moved his lunch time from 12 to 1 p.m. without consulting him, but Trilby accepted the new order of things. (Eventually. Mostly.) Then there was the time, soon after I moved to my present (and very walkable) neighbourhood, that I resolved to combine my errand running with the daily one-hour brisk walk I take for exercise. I had been someone who could never get her library books returned on time, and that simple resolution immediately transformed me into someone to a person who was very much on top of her errands. Besides library book drop offs and pick ups, I do my banking, take my shoes to the cobbler, get a few necessities at the dollar store or drug store or Home Depot or Staples, mail parcels or buy stamps at the post office, scout out new restaurants and coffeeshops and other businesses I might use, and probably some other things I'm not thinking of at the moment. Now I actively look for errands to run before going for my walk, and am disappointed if I can't think of anything that needs doing.       

You need to become your own efficiency expert, to develop an understanding of how you function, and to work with your own natural tendencies rather than against them. If you are, say, definitely either a morning or an evening person, you will need to structure your day around your best times. My best times are the morning, so I schedule things that take the most energy or are the most high priority for then. I don't have the stamina to do physical work all day long, so I plan it in increments of one or two hours. Setting up any sort of reward system doesn't work for me, as I tend to just give myself the rewards anyway, even when I haven't reached my intended benchmarks, so I just set my living standards and treat myself in a way that seems reasonable and is affordable, and do my work for its own sake.  

Track Your Data and Organize Your Working and Living Spaces

In The Onion article, Derek reports that on the Friday of his beleaguered week off, he tried to pick up a desk he had on layaway at Staples, but as he didn't have his receipt with him instead wound up "arguing with the [poor Staples employee] for almost an hour". He also managed, during the course of his week, to lose his gas bill while on his way to the mailbox. He should not have left his house without knowing exactly what errands he was going to do and making sure he had whatever information or items he needed with him to do that, such as measurements for the space for the CD rack he wanted to buy, or his friends' wedding registry details. A planner of some kind would have helped him collate that information, and possibly also given him a secure place to keep his gas bill until he could put it in the mailbox. 

I use an old school paper-based planner for my to do lists, and to keep track of other information. Again, thanks to my chronic fatigue issues, my short-term memory is terrible, my memory for numbers and other hard data such as addresses and names, which has always been poor, has only gotten worse, and it helps enormously to have everything documented. I have a dark brown ARC junior-size notebook that I've been using since 2013. I was so thrilled when I first discovered the ARC line of products at Staples, feeling that I'd finally found the planner I'd been looking for since I was in my late teens: a good-looking, durable, customizable, reusable system I could refill from year to year, which made it much less environmentally wasteful than most bound planners. I ran into a snag when I realized that Staples Canada doesn't stock the annual calendar inserts that make the notebooks useful (seriously, what the hell, Staples Canada), and every November for seven years, I made arrangements with one of my American friends to buy and ship me the coming year's refill. Then in late 2019, I became the happy owner of an ARC hole punch, made myself a set of durable laminated monthly tab dividers, and learned to create and print my own calendar refills for my ARC notebook, which makes the cost of a refill pretty negligible. 

I love my planner and hardly leave the house without it. For that matter, I barely go from one room in my house to another without it. In it, I not only write my daily to do lists, but also keep lists of the projects I want to do and other goals, lists of the things I want and need to buy, my gift list for the year, list of the books I want to read and movies/TV shows I want to see, lists of the addresses and other contact information for family, friends, and useful professionals, and track my deadlines, appointments, and Zoom meetings. I usually keep recent receipts and/or documents I have immediate need for in the front cover's inside pocket, and a zippered insert at the back holds my samples (fabric, yarn, paint, etc.) for convenient colour matching when shopping. 

The above may come across as some sort of ARC advertisement, but it is not. I have no dog in this race. I know a lot of people are using their phones for nearly all of the above these days, and I know people who have other paper-based systems. My 82-year-old parents use a calendar that hangs in their kitchen to keep track of their engagements and coordinate the use of their one vehicle (and the monthly calendar is usually a mass of ink as a result, because they are extraordinarily productive and active people for their age). My sister uses a desk planner at the office, and a kitchen calendar to keep track of her personal life. Do have a planning system of some kind, but use whatever planning system works best for you. It may take a process of trial and error to find out what system that is, and you may never be done refining your system, but by all means try some different methods out, and go with whatever organizational methods make your life go more smoothly and easily. 

Having an organized work and living space is even more important than having a planner system. Years ago when I was doing a interior decorator's certificate program at George Brown College, I remember our instructor telling us, "Everything in your home should have a home," and it's a solid maxim. When you have a designated place and/or maintenance system for every object you own, it makes it easy for you to use it. I have a rule that my email inbox can't have more than ten emails in it. I have a folder in my filing cabinet for warranties and user manuals. I have a special folder for paper receipts. I have wardrobe planning strategies (and have written at length about them). I keep my keys either in my coat pocket or in one particular zippered pocket in the handbag I use for daily use. I have a hook on my hall closet door where I hang that handbag. There's a little notebook in the odds and ends drawer in my kitchen that I use for my grocery lists -- I can add items to the list whenever I run out of things during the week. When it comes to basic supplies, my rule is usually "buy one ahead" (i.e., there is one opened bottle of shampoo in the shower and a second unopened one in the supply basket in the linen closet, and the same goes for conditioner, dental floss, moisturizer, cold cream, deodorant, etc.). I very seldom waste time trying to find anything -- if I own something, I very reliably know where it will be in my house, even if I haven't needed it in quite some time -- and it's very rare for me to lose anything, or to have to make a special trip to the store.

In general, I try to be aware of "pain points", by which I mean those tasks that are a pain in the ass, that are a waste of time, that I hate doing, that I can't seem to stay on top of . Whenever I become aware of these pain points, I try to do some thinking about how I can resolve whatever issue I'm having rather than simply assuming nothing can be done about it but soldiering on. Soon after buying my house, which needed a huge amount of work, I became frustrated with my inability to keep track of the samples and information I needed for the renovations, and one day I spent two hours setting up a home renovation binder in which I could keep all my fabric samples, paint chips, quotes from tradespeople, diagrams of the garden, measurements and other specifications, lists of things that needed to be done, etc. Each room/area of the house had its own plastic sheath in which the relevant info was kept. When I described this binder project to my mother, she started going on about how much time it would have taken me to assemble it, her implication being that it was a useless waste of that time. I pointed out that I had been regularly spending much more time on protracted and exasperating searches for a particular sample or piece of information than it had taken me to put the binder together. 

Setting up systems to keep your information or physical objects organized does take time and effort, but it's an investment in your quality of life going forward. Once you have organizing methods that work for you, and routines that will help you keep them that way, they will save you time and frustration over the long run. Such rules and systems can seem a tiresome nuisance at the outset, but paradoxically if you implement only those that work well for you, they will be freeing, helping you to get necessary and/or formerly difficult tasks done as quickly and easily as possible, and maximizing the time you have left for more fun or fulfilling activities.   

Try Journaling

I have found journaling can help a lot when I'm working on an ongoing project, or trying to make life changes. It gives me an outlet for all the feelings and thoughts that might otherwise interfere with what I'm trying to do. I've also found that writing down what I planned to do on a given day, then writing an account of what I did do, and comparing the intended agenda with the actual course of action, is a useful exercise. Seeing what I did that day set down in black and white makes it easier for me to look objectively at how I function, and can help me spot self-sabotaging behaviours or logistical issues, and identify ways to manage my time better. If you're struggling with productivity -- or for that matter any issue in life -- I recommend journaling as a coping strategy.  

Have Realistic Expectations

I have one mantra regarding the quality of the work I do, and it is "Aim for excellence, not perfection." The first is achievable; the second isn't. 

As to the quantity of the work I do, it's one of those time management tips that, after writing a to do list, one should estimate how much time each thing will take to make sure it's a realistic list. This is a tip that was a revelation to me when I first came across it years ago, because it made me realize that I was hopelessly over optimistic when it came to estimating how long things would take and how much I could get done in a day. I'd write up a to-do list for the day, then duly estimate how long each thing would take... and realize that I'd planned at least fourteen to sixteen hours of work. I'm still overly optimistic in this regard, but now I'm aware of it and guard against its effects when I'm planning my work. If I'm not sure how long something will take, it usually goes on my to do list in the form of "work on X for two hours" rather than "do X". When Derek Olsson was planning his week, he should have estimated how much time each thing on his complete to do list would take, and then, if it really was too much to accomplish in nine days, he should have figured out which items he was going to prioritize and do on his vacation, and then made a post-vacation plan for how he would do the rest. 

It's also important to not expect oneself to work too hard, and to make time in your schedule to relax, have fun, and spend time with those who matter to you. Fourteen hour work days aren't sustainable. I think it would be reasonable for Derek to have planned to do 8-9 hours of work each day, which with the addition of 8 hours of sleep would give him 7-8 free hours a day. He'd need to use some of that time for meal breaks, a shower, getting dressed and groomed, and exercise, of course, but that should still have left him with a mostly free evening. 

Derek should have planned to have fun and to spend time with the people in his life during his free evenings, but he also should have set some sensible limits on his recreational time to make sure it didn't derail the rest of his agenda. Derek went out to a local pub for its "Rocky's Sunday Night Record Jam" on Sunday evening, something he said he didn't ordinarily didn't get to do because he had to get up at 6 a.m. on workday Mondays. I think it was fine for him to go to the pub, but he should have decided in advance on how many drinks he would have, and what time he would come home and go to bed, and then stuck to that, so as not to impede his ability to work on his projects on Monday. 

Have a Healthy Locus of Control

Not every problem can be resolved by individual effort, and it's important to take a step back and make sure you're distinguishing between the things that are realistically within your control, and the things that aren't. Sometimes your problems are going to be larger than you can cope with alone, and you'll need to turn to your family and friends for support, or avail yourself of professional help. Sometimes problems are systemic, and will require collective effort, or even a major societal shift. Things like neurological issues, substance abuse, personality disorders, eating disorders, depression, grief, or other psychological problems can also interfere greatly with your ability to function. If you've been having a protracted struggle with some problem that's impacting your quality of life, and you've been unable to overcome it on your own despite your best efforts, do reach out for the help you need. If you don't believe that anything can help you, think of it as exploring your options and finding out for sure whether there is or isn't help out there for you. If you're a member of a marginalized group, you may be dealing with the fallout from bigotry or oppression. I'm not going to try to tell you how to deal with that, because it's not your responsibility to overcome other people's hate or institutionalized discrimination, but I will say I hope that you have a support system you can turn to for help.  

Right now most people are struggling with the emotional stress and practical hardships caused by pandemic conditions, and with the fear occasioned by the looming climate crisis. These are terrible times, I know, and having every horrifying detail of every thing that's especially fucked up about our messed-up world seared into your brain every time you go online or look at the news is not making matters easier, but all we can do is try to keep calm and carry on, and do the best we can to make things better. Look about you, take stock of your skills and resources, identify the things that you can reasonably do to help yourself and others, and then do those things. Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can. Keep in mind that sometimes your efforts will position you to take advantage of future opportunities and solutions that aren't even on the horizon right now. And, whatever happens, you'll know you did whatever you could do. There's a lot of comfort and peace of mind to be found in that feeling. 

When I look at Derek's situation and assess it for possible larger issues that are too much for him to deal with on his own, or are systemic, I find it would probably be a good idea for him to consider whether he has ADHD or some other neurological issue that's interfering with his ability to get anything done, and have himself assessed for it. I also think it's utterly ridiculous that he gets just one week's vacation a year. That is simply not enough time off, and unless he can get a better job with a better compensation package and/or move to a region with better labour laws, that is something he can probably only play a small part in addressing through some sort of political effort (i.e., voting for political candidates who will work towards better protections for labour, or supporting union organization). 

But that said, Derek's locus of control is set much too low, and he should be taking more responsibility for his problems. He's a young, straight, white, and apparently healthy and able-bodied man, which is the easiest setting in North American society, and if he can't keep his living quarters clean and tidy and do his laundry, that's on him. He needs to expect more of himself. Resolving to use responsible language and nixing such phrases as "if the whole universe hadn't been against me" would be a good start. Losing his gas bill payment on the way to the mailbox was a boneheaded move, but Derek didn't "have to wait until a second notice" to pay the bill as he claimed, especially when that will probably mean he'll have to pay interest charges/late fees. He could have searched for the missing envelope, or written and mailed another cheque, or better yet, set up automatic payment for that bill and whatever others he can, in order to save himself the time and effort of doing it every month.

Sometimes our problems will be too much for us, and we will need help... and sometimes we simply have to give ourselves a shake and get moving. If you're feeling frozen and overwhelmed (this is something I struggle with), take one action, even if it's only a minor one. That one action will probably help you do another, and another after that. 

Don't Get Sidetracked

Once you have a plan to do whatever needs to be done, don't get sidetracked into off-list trivial tasks that might be fun or easy to do but that won't have any actual pay off in terms of your quality of life. Derek spent most of the second Saturday of his vacation re-alphabetizing his CDs. For the record, this is actually something I have some sympathy with. All my books and CDs are alphabetized. When you have a lot of anything, such as books, CDs, or DVDs, it's wise to put them, and keep them, in some sort of order so you can find a particular book or CD easily without a time-wasting search, so I would say it is worth doing. But it's a low priority task, and Derek should have focused on more consequential to do list items first. I also note that the article says Derek was "re-alphabetizing" his CDs, which suggests that the CDs were already in alphabetical order, and well, dude

I have my own off-list pitfalls. I've noticed I often get sidetracked into planning, researching and shopping for the supplies for some future project when I have so many projects planned, researched, and shopped for already. Or I start a new project when I have so many already on the go. I find the planning and preparation part of a project, and starting a new project, easy, fun, and exciting, while putting in the actual work of doing a project can be frustrating and tedious. I try to be aware of this and to draw a hard line against prepping for new projects, or starting a new project instead of working on an unfinished one, unless it becomes genuinely necessary that I do a particular one right away. 

I will add here that sometimes the trivial and/or fun tasks have their uses when it comes to getting yourself into working mode. All those time management books tell us to do the most important tasks first, and while that is sound advice in a general way, I find that sometimes when I can't get going, it can be helpful to start with a quick, easy item. My day usually starts with a few such routine tasks: making my bed, washing up the few breakfast dishes, cleaning the litter box. Getting one or a few such things done gives me a sense of accomplishment and momentum, and helps my brain transition from "Oh No I Have To Do Boring and Unpleasant Work Now And I Don't Wanna" mode to "Yay I'm Getting Things Done" mode. 

Be aware of the kind of flabby pleasures one lets oneself slide into in an effort to avoid doing something worthwhile, as when Derek spent the Tuesday of his vacation re-reading a Harry Potter book in his bathrobe. The Harry Potter books are no temptation to me, but I have my own work avoidance black holes to steer clear of. I often spend too much time re-reading an old favourite book or mindlessly browsing the internet, and one of my 2021 resolutions was to stop playing video games, though this specifically meant "stop playing online solitaire", since that is the only one I was playing. I deleted all the games on my 2012 laptop years ago, but in an evil moment in 2020, I discovered I could play solitaire online for free. And I'd often find myself getting sucked into playing it for hours out of inertia -- despite my better self's reminders that it was an idiotic waste of time and I wasn't even really enjoying it -- because my tired, overwhelmed brain found it easier than dealing with the level of effort and frustration involved in doing something worthwhile. Mindfulness is key when it comes to these treading water activities, as it's easy to stop oneself early on or before you begin rather than after one has gotten completely sucked in. These days I try to make it a rule that if I am genuinely too tired to do anything active or focus, I must take a nap rather than do something mindless, as sleep is the constructive option, even if it means I won't get anything done right away.  

If you should get some overwhelming urge to play hooky from your working agenda, at least make it count by doing something that you can really enjoy and will be glad you did afterwards. Life is too short and precious to spend doing something stupid that you're only doing because it helps you avoid doing something that you don't want to do. 

Engage With And Enjoy Whatever You Do

Try to enjoy whatever you do by engaging with it fully. Mindfulness techniques can help with this. Keep in mind that you needn't enjoy everything in anticipation or wait until you feel like doing something before you do it, because the act of doing something usually generates the appropriate feelings for it. I think I hate to vacuum and dread it, and always have to remind myself that the reality is that once I get going on the vacuuming, I don't mind it very much, and that it's so rewarding to have a clean house afterwards. 

As for the things that are impossible to enjoy, or are even miserable, I have read that in Alcoholics Anonymous one of their slogans is, "If you're white knuckling it, you're doing it wrong." This advice seems to me to apply to far more of human experience and endeavour than sobriety, and even though I have never done drugs or been a problem drinker, I try to live by it. There's no virtue or sense in torturing oneself. If we make our lives and our work harder than they really have to be, we're setting ourselves up for a relapse, or outright failure. If something you have to do is time or labour-intensive or otherwise difficult for you in a way you find unbearable, it's time to rethink it. Maybe there's something you could do to make it more pleasant and enjoyable. Maybe there are hacks or techniques that will help you do it faster and/or more easily. Maybe you need better tools or equipment or there's some sort of technological solution. Maybe it's worth hiring it done. Maybe there's another alternative to doing it at all. Maybe the task isn't even your responsibility and someone else should be doing it.

If you are still finding an absolutely necessary task too tedious for words, look for physical ways to make it enjoyable. Playing music or an audiobook or a podcast while you work could be an option, or talking on the phone, or singing while you work. (I seem to be unable to vacuum without also simultaneously belting out Lady Gaga songs.) Or change your environment. Once when I had a skirt to hem, it wasn't happening because I find hemming boring and that skirt seemed to be a mile around. I decided part of the problem was that, when I tried to do it at home, I was surrounded by so many other more interesting/fun things to do that I'd invariably ditch the hemming to do something else. In an impulse born of exasperation with myself, I packed the skirt, scissors, thread, and my pincushion into a tote bag and went to the park. There I had nothing to do but hem the skirt, and while I worked, I could also enjoy the fresh air, sunshine, the sight and sounds of children playing, people watch, and chat with the half dozen or so children or adults who came traipsing up to me see/ask what I was doing. It was all very pleasant and I worked non-stop on that skirt until it was done. I've kept this life hack in mind and have often taken other portable tasks to the park since. Libraries and coffeeshops can also be good places to work (pandemic or post-pandemic conditions allowing) if you can't focus at home or wherever you're "supposed" to be working.    


Talk Yourself Through Negativity

Some people have excellent physical and mental stamina and/or naturally stable, positive, direct minds, and they seem to find it easy to forge ahead with whatever needs to be done. I admire and madly envy such highly effective, super productive people, as I have neither attribute. My energy levels have been crap since I developed chronic fatigue issues in 2007, and my bizarre brain has always been a sort of neurological minefield. I am high-strung and irritable, and am very prone to ruminating, fantasizing, distraction, frustration, getting overwhelmed, discouragement, and despair, and it's extremely difficult for me to keep myself on an even keel mentally. I have gotten somewhat better at controlling myself as I've grown older -- my tolerance for frustration has certainly improved immeasurably since I was a teenager or even since my twenties -- but it's still a constant battle. 

I can't do much about my physical energy levels, but I live in hope of getting better at managing my mind. I look to the kind of incredibly effective super producers I admire -- some illustrious ones like Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Stacey Abrams, as well as other people I know personally  -- and try to analyze how they do what they do, and to apply those insights to my own life. My friend Christine is one such person. I have known her since I was sixteen and she was seventeen, and she has always been the kind of person who could map out a course of action and carry it out in incredibly efficient, no-fuss, matter-of-fact way, whether it was as a co-editor of our high school newspaper as she was when I first met her, or as the senior-level civil servant she now is, or while planning her wedding, or renovating her kitchen during her pregnancy with her first child, or selling her house and moving to a new one while pregnant with her second child. I've learned so much from her over the years, both from observing how she functions, and from her repeatedly giving me timely and specific advice on how to translate my own pie-in-the-sky ideas into realistic plans in which the nuts and bolts are all lined up. 

One thing I've noticed about super producers is how good they are at not being bogged down or boxed in by negativity or other such mental roadblocks. They're good at cutting through all that self-defeating mental crap, at separating the useful from the useless, at inverting dysfunctional paradigms, at remaining focused on what can and should be done and what process and resources it will take to do it. No matter how carefully you plan or how hard you try, things will go wrong and you will make mistakes, and you'll get frustrated and discouraged, and that frustration and discouragement can become difficulties in themselves. It's important to develop the mental tool kit for working through mistakes and setbacks, and to talk yourself through moments of frustration or negative thoughts instead of letting them derail you.

For instance, in The Onion article, Derek became exasperated with himself because he found a box labelled "magazines" actually contained socks and a pencil sharpener, and then gave up unpacking the boxes and went upstairs to watch TV, which was only going to lead to him being even angrier with himself in future for having still not unpacked those boxes. What he should have done was remind himself that, mislabeled or not, that box still needed unpacking, that the socks and pencil sharpener were of more use to him than magazines that would have been over three years old, and then unpacked that box, and moved on to the next one. Derek also spent the entire last day of his vacation berating himself for having wasted an entire week, instead of deciding to focus on at least using that one remaining day wisely. There's no point in wallowing in regrets or other negative feelings. Whenever I find myself in an "eleventh hour" situation, which happens all too often (and for that matter is basically status quo for me, given how I've spent my life), I try to think, "What can I do right now," rather than chastise myself for what I should have done hours or days or years ago. Whenever I find myself getting upset about a situation, I try to remind myself that I can either uselessly emote and carry on about it, or make a plan to resolve or at least improve the situation, and then choose to do the latter.   

The mental tricks we can use to overcome negative thinking and get ourselves moving can be amazingly simple. My father is a woodworker, and one time some years ago a customer of his had ordered four grandfather clocks from him. It was a huge, complex project and one which Dad probably found intimidating. He told me that at one point when he realized that time was getting on since the order and the clocks weren't getting built, he resolved that from then on he was going to work on that clock project every single day, even if he didn't get much done. He kept that resolve. Some days Dad would work on those clocks for hours, and some days he would work for as little as fifteen minutes, but with progress being made on that job every day, those clocks got done in good time. (And to stunning end results.) Whenever I've used that tip to get moving on a big project, it has worked well for me too.   

Getting a Handle on Things

When I began writing this piece, I originally thought I could polish it off in three or four hours (this would be an example of the characteristically hopeless over-optimism that I referred to above). The resulting essay, which is over 7,800 words long, took much more work and far longer than my initial expectation. We live in a messy, complex world and we are messy, complex beings. It can be very, very difficult for us to get ourselves and our lives in any kind of order, and that order will always be limited and fragile given how much shit life can throw at us. But learning, and being mindful of, the basic principles of productivity can help a lot. 

When one carries a heavy load, the task can be brutally hard, or even impossible, if all the weight is in one big box that one's arms can't comfortably reach around. Carrying that weight can become much easier when the contents or the box are transferred into packages that can be stowed away in a backpack and a few tote bags, or into smaller boxes carried on separate trips, or if one uses a dolly to move the big box, or has someone to help carry the big box, or if one can even add improvisational handles to the big box using packing tape and a couple of small plastic bags. The weight of the task remains the same in all cases, but strategy and method can make it far easier for us to bear. 

Monday 2 November 2020

Style Dissected

The Power of Styleby Annette Tapert and Diana Edkins, published in 1994, is a book that I checked out of the Toronto public library system more times than I care to count in the ten or so years after I first saw a copy on display at my local branch. When, circa 2007, I came across a $5 copy of it at Value Village, I snapped it up at once. I was quite sure that I'd paid out more than $5 in overdue library fines for this particular book.

The Power of Style contains well-written essays on, and wonderful photographs of, fourteen different uber-stylish women. Who are, for the record: Rita Lydig, Pauline de Rothschild, Daisy Fellowes, the Duchess of Windsor, Millicent Rogers, Mona Bismarck, Coco Chanel, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elsie de Wolfe, Diana Vreeland, Slim Keith, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, and Gloria Guinness. With all its beautiful photos and fascinating biographical details, The Power of Style is a pleasure to read and peruse, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in style, but I find myself tempted to schluff over any actual review of the book and get down to musing about my fascination with it. I am deeply interested in style and have a treasured collection of 30-odd books on style and fashion history. Style does fascinate many people, probably because it is so elusive. We know it when we see it, but it can never be quite defined, and as motion attracts the eye so does the ever-shifting, chameleon quality of style attract the gaze. The act of making the messy business of living look effortless and elegant awes and inspires. Being stylish is an accomplishment; perhaps not the most worthwhile accomplishment, but an achievement nonetheless. And though being conventionally attractive and wealthy can help one be stylish, it's not something one is born with nor can it be bought. 

There is a companion book to this volume by the same authors called The Power of Glamour, but while I enjoyed reading that one too, it never captivated me the way The Power of Style has. Being glamourous never seemed like an attainable or even worthwhile pursuit to me -- glamour is an illusory, ephemeral quality, dependent mostly on youth and beauty, and no one's life is glamourous up close. Style, on the other hand, is somewhat more concrete, and is the fruit of concerted originality, discipline, verve, confidence, wit, and resourcefulness. Several of the women profiled in The Power of Style weren't beautiful in any conventional sense. The Duchess of Windsor, Elsie de Wolfe, and Diana Vreeland were all undeniably plain, but they all learned early in life that while beauty is a gift of nature, nearly anyone who is willing to put in the effort to become well-groomed and well-dressed can be attractive, and such were their learned skills of self-presentation that their very names are bywords of style. 

I used to read this book again and again, as though it held the key to becoming a woman of style if I could only find it. How could I be more like these women? I suppose I did eventually unlock their secret, when it dawned on me that these fourteen women were icons of style because they weren't imitating anyone else. These women created unique look for themselves and their homes and entertained in a way that suited their unique physical looks, their tastes and interests, their era, their particular milieu, and their means, and while they drew inspiration from others and the world around them just as I do from them, they always transmuted whatever ideas they got from elsewhere into something truly their own. 

This principle of evolving my own style, of making an educated choice as to what I really wanted and what suited me and disregarding the rest (as Diana Vreeland said, "Elegance is refusal,"), has imbued all my own efforts at dressing and decorating since, and has not only made me much better at both but has also been incredibly freeing. Though I loved fashion magazines in my teens and twenties, I almost never read them anymore, as I find they are mostly about conspicuous consumption and passing trends and a very prescriptive idea of attractiveness, when what I'm interested in is choosing and often making beautiful, good quality clothes that I can enjoy for years until they're worn out. Often some timeless fashion photo from the past can be of more real use to me than pictures of some ridiculous of-the-moment $1200 purse. What little real information fashion magazines offer (i.e., tips on makeup application, organizing or exercise) can be found for free and in greater detail elsewhere. Pinterest especially has become a replacement for magazines for me (despite my issues with its search engine), as it is both an amazing research tool and a way to create a visual file of ideas and plans for any design project. The concept of self-directed style has also been an essential part of my editorial slant on my knitting blog, The Knitting Needle and the Damage Done, where I try to encourage knitters to take a critical approach towards the process of selecting knitting patterns for their projects, and to be their own designer when it comes to wardrobe planning.  

Even though my study of this book did teach me how to be a woman of style in theory, I have relinquished whatever hope I may have had of ever actually becoming one, as it takes resources and a level of energy I will never have. This book makes it plain that being a woman of style requires not only originality and verve and self-discipline, but also resources. Being a style icon is incompatible with holding down a full-time job and doing all one's own housekeeping, not to mention caring for small children. Very few of these women had a job with regular office hours, and none did all their own housekeeping. Diana Vreeland did work 18-hour days as editor-in-chief of Vogue, but she also had a household staff, including a maid who polished the soles of her shoes and ironed her dollar bills. Most of the fourteen women either had no children or were lacklustre mothers. Daisy Fellowes met her four young daughters in the park one day and didn't know them. 

Then too, the pictures in this book and the anecdotes related in the essays are highlight reels, not the backstage view. There are no pictures of any of these women taken just after they had woken up in the morning, or in the act of grooming, or weathering a bad case of the flu, or while they were in an advanced or even middle stage of pregnancy, and there are no pictures of Slim Keith after she had ceased to embody her nickname.

That isn't to say their lives were all exquisitely arranged floral bouquets. These women experienced financial difficulties, married men who mistreated them, struggled with poor health, or sometimes were so consumed with appearances that they didn't accomplish much else, as in the Duchess of Windsor's case. But throughout their lives, whatever happened, their style was a tool and a mainspring that they used to earn a living, to attract partners, for social entrĂ©e, to inform or even become their life's work, and to define and sustain themselves. Their lives are worth study and a continued source of inspiration, because one needn't be an icon of style to use style in one's own life in much the same way. 

Wednesday 6 March 2019

Sometimes David Can't Stop Goliath, and Shouldn't Be Expected To

Everyone's praising Gayle King for keeping her cool in the face of R. Kelly's abusive lies and rage during her CBS This Morning interview with him, and rightly so. There's no denying that her steely composure is admirable. But it should never have come to the point of a woman having to sit in a room with an abusive man and remain calm and professional despite his garbage behaviour in order to do her job. R. Kelly should have been imprisoned decades ago.

When I see situations like Gayle King interviewing R. Kelly, or Christine Blasey Ford testifying against Brett Kavanaugh, or Hillary Clinton debating Donald Trump, or Lucy DeCoutere testifying against Jian Ghomeshi, it always hurts me. Yes, they all showed great fortitude in the face of abuse, stayed calm and resolute, did what they had to do. But the fact is that they should never have been put in that position, and that, heartbreakingly, when they were, their gallant best efforts didn't do much good.

We're asking too high a level of individual effort and sacrifice in our society, and not enough of ourselves collectively. We need to become more effective at curbing abuse and bigotry and corruption in their early stages.

No amount of wealth, success, or fame, or other privilege should ever insulate anyone from the consequences of abuse. No one should ever get away with decades of crushing others under their feet. And no victim should ever be left unheard or without recourse. When we don't listen to victims, when they are left to struggle with their abusers on their own, powerful abusers become only more powerful, more emboldened, more destructive. Over time they become leviathans whom it's impossible to stop by any amount of individual heroism, though we keep throwing people in the line of fire anyway.

It's time to level the playing field as much as we can socioeconomically, and especially in our criminal justice systems, to keep the Donald Trumps from becoming the juggernauts that they are, and to safeguard us all, both from the damage they can do, and from anyone having to make Sisyphean personal efforts to get justice.