my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

April 5th, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XVIII

At this very moment, my RRBB, after an exhausting few minutes of rolling over, fussing because he can’t get himself back again (like a turtle on its back only in reverse; it’s quite funny), has spent the last fifteen or so minutes looking at himself in the mirror on his activity mat. His concentration skills are hilarious. I’m not sure at all what he sees in the mirror but he’s absolutely enamoured with whatever it is…

Here is our wee boy at five months (five months!) [And this picture is already three weeks old because he’s 26 weeks tomorrow]. He’s starting to have quite the little personality. My temper, my RRHB’s response to anything traumatic (to go to sleep), and a lovely happy smile that belongs to him alone. Everyone keeps telling us that this is the best of the baby stage — when they get to this age, five or six months, but I’m enjoying every baby stage these days, if only because it’s all so new to me, and just so damn fun. That’s not to say that I’m not exhausted, because I am, beyond words, and that I’m not frustrated by how the disease still refuses to calm down, because I am, but I’m trying to be calm and collected, find a quiet routine we can settle into, and make the most of the time that I have before heading up to the cottage for the summer (without plumbing!).

We gave the RRBB some sweet potatoes this afternoon. His very first non-cereal food. He decided about four bites in that enough was enough and he’d really just prefer to breast feed. It’s a slow, patient process, this real-food business. Like anything, I am excited for him and want to record every little thing that happens — but I can’t be sure that when he’s older, he’ll actually want to know.

Over the last few days, I’ve seen many doctors: SFDD, kidney doctor, gastro doc, and had some blood work done today. I’m not going to lie — I’ve been panicking inside a whole lot about the state of my poor kidneys. I have tried to be positive, tried to look at the bright side of it all (that my condition is essentially unchanged since two weeks before having the baby), and yet regardless of all the drugs, of all the “resting,” of all the not working, my creatinine is still sky high as is my blood pressure. In all the years I’ve had the disease, I’ve never had high blood pressure — and I hate taking medicine for things that my body should just do right — and it scares me when I put the cuff on and get a reading like 146/98. We can’t afford any more restorative yoga at the moment, and the money I thought would last us a year barely made it through six months. Such is life, right?

Last time, I promised I would stop complaining about being sick. Or tired. Sick and tired. A lot of residual shock and awe about how everything turned out led me to try and read other birth stories. Helen left a comment letting me know about a collection called Great Expectations: Twenty-Four True Stories About Childbirth edited by Lisa Moore and Dede Crane (#31). And it’s excellent (thank you Toronto Public Library for loaning me a copy). I whipped through it in just a couple of hours (over a few days) and came to the conclusion that not a single birth plan goes according to, well, plan. For something that women have been doing since women were, well, invented, childbirth is as complex and ever-changing as people are themselves. I needed to read this — I needed to know that despite all the best laid plans (birthing tubs, doulas, midwifes, home births, drugs, no drugs) that a women might set out before her due date, chances are something dramatic will change in the minutes when she shouts “it’s time” at her husband and/or significant other. It’s a bright, fascinating collection — not a single one of the writers fall back into cliche to describe their experiences, which I felt was a revelation considering most pop culture birth stories coming to us via television and the movies aren’t remotely realistic. Like firefighters heading into a blaze without their masks, they’re all panting and fake screaming, with babies popping out looking six months old already. But this collection is painstakingly honest, achingly real and just what I needed to read.

Anyway, I don’t have much else to say. I’ve been trying to write this blog post for over a week now and the RRBB hasn’t let me get much done. I’ve got two book reviews to get to and a to-do list that is as long as my arm. So, I will stop rambling, for now.

March 21st, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XVI

RRBB has been hitting some very fun milestones lately. He had his first taste of solid food (if you can call it that) as the picture here depicts. He slept through the night: twice (even though in the few hours preceding the long sleep he was over-tired and ridiculously manic, but not upset). He visited a sugar bush and an antique mall (or, rather, his bored parents dragged him to said sugar bush and said antique mall). And he was babysat for the second time while my RRHB and I went to see the Elephant 6 collective at Lee’s Palace on Friday night. Shockingly, he’s still the happy, well adjusted, easy baby we’ve brought into this world.

Of course, I’m still not sleeping from the drugs. But the odd night isn’t so bad here and there, I can handle it. It’s funny, I get poetic about it in a way: the sun rises and it sets, the moon comes out, but without that deep hours-long pause — time passing in an instant because you are, well, unconscious, everything blurs into one, breakfast feels like a late night snack, lunch disappears, and dinner is always rushed, trying to cram the day in before the bedtime routine starts. As always, I am at a loss for spoken words. Friends came over for dinner yesterday and I just couldn’t finish my sentences, kept forgetting words, used the wrong words, filled up the space with malapropisms — when does the ‘baby brain’ end? Perhaps when I get more consistent, consecutive rest, or perhaps when the RRBB turns 18 and heads off to university. Who knows. For now, I’m struggling with simple sentences while complex thoughts careen around my brain like snowflakes — always melting before they necessarily land.

We went to the Bloor/Gladstone library last week, and it was glorious. It really is a beautiful building and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy libraries. I haven’t truly visited one on a regular basis since being in grad school, and now that we’re pinching every penny, I simply can’t afford to buy books. I’ve been wondering a lot about other birth stories, wanting to compare experiences, wanting to maybe experience a little catharsis too in terms of my own trials and tribulations. So, one of the books I picked up was Rebecca Eckler’s Knocked Up (#27). I didn’t read anything other then What to Expect When You’re Expecting while I was pregnant, and now that I’m no longer pregnant (although still with-pooch), I am curious to know about other mothers-to-be. I mean, not everyone ends up on the special pregnancy ward of Mt. Sinai hospital with their lungs bleeding before giving birth, right?

In short, I wanted to know what normal was like, in a way. Granted, there was a little too much: “is my ass fat????” throughout Knocked Up, and I don’t know that I would have chosen a c-section had one not been chosen for me (I was oddly looking forward to the experience of giving birth). But I did laugh in various places, and while I know Eckler takes a lot of flack for her self-involved, me-first, examination of both pregnancy and parenthood, I actually enjoyed the lighthearted nature of the book. More chicklit than the nauseating “motherhood makes me a saint” stance of so much that I find online relating to this situation we’re in (yes, motherhood), Knocked Up gave me a bit of a mental break in terms of contemplating all that happened to me, and that’s all I’d ask of it. It was an easy-breezy read and I’m jealous of her ability to stay so completely focussed on not changing in the midst of such a huge change.

That’s not something I’ve been able to do — none of my clothes fit, in fact, I can’t even seem to find three-quarters of my wardrobe, having packed things away to who knows where in the house. My body is so very different and I barely recognize myself in the mirror. The shock of the naked self in the shower is enough to give up food forever, and were it not for the prednisone encouraging my stomach to crave every baked good on the face of this earth, I just might. I need to get more exercise, and I was actually jealous when the Rebecca in Knocked Up went out on a girl date barely two weeks into her daughter’s existence. There’s a level of guilt that I feel the moment I am away from the baby — that I am being a bad mother in a way by not constantly being in his company. I know that’s crazy, and ridiculous, and that doesn’t mean that I don’t hand him off to his father for hours at a time, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier leaving him. But to get back to my point, the physical changes — shorter hair, chubbier me, bloating from the meds — feel so much more permanent these days than the mental ones.

The mental part of being a mother seems easy these days. There’s love. You give it out, a lot of it. There’s patience, which sometimes gets tested. There’s joy. There’s boredom, and there’s bliss — but it all comes together in a pretty awesome package. So, I don’t blame someone for obsessing about the size of their ass — it’s overwhelming to contemplate all of the physical and mental changes at the same time, something’s got to give. I was remembering way back in the way back this week. An old boss I had at an evil corporation that I used to work for (which no longer exists) took us out for lunch within the first few months of her assuming a position she later proved she was utterly unqualified for. She had just finished mat leave for her second child and we were talking about babies. At some point, and I can’t remember what preceded the moment, she crinkled up her face and said that she really didn’t like babies, not even her own. Perhaps she likes her kids when they get out of the difficult infant stage, who knows, but all I’ve been thinking this week is how awesome babies are. I know I shouldn’t be so judgmental but as if I didn’t need another reason to post-actively hate the woman, now I even think she’s kind of inhumane. I’ve already forgotten the witching hour, the exhaustion, the frustration of the first little while, and moved on to complete and utter adoration.

I know it won’t always be like this — and we’re so lucky that we have an extremely easy going baby — but, for right now, I’m wallowing in the fun of it all. Charging ahead with crazy vampire kisses and holding that baby high up in the air to hear him squeal. Suffering through the whining when he’s in the car seat to enjoy a beautiful spring day where it neither rains nor snows — where the sun actually feels warm. Staying up far past my bedtime to enjoy a moment of non-couch (baby STILL only sleeps on me for long periods of time) freedom to watch reruns of Law and Order. Listening to him giggle uncontrollably downstairs as my RRHB plays with him. Even sobbing uncontrollably because of the hormones and whatever else is coarsing through my system because of the meds. It’s all awesome in a traditional sense of the word — it inspires awe in me that this is my life now, that my life contains another’s so completely at the moment, all things that I didn’t know when I was just pregnant and hoping to live. I am thankful that I did. I wouldn’t want to miss any of this.

Other library finds for this week: Blink, A History of the World in 10 and 1/2 Chapters, West Toronto Junction, Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems, as well as Knocked Up. I’ve been reading a poem a night before I go to bed, just dipping into them, and found this delicious line that somewhat sums up my last couple weeks: “O clamorous heart, lie still.”

As if it could. As if.

December 30th, 2010

#65 – Payback

Margaret Atwood is one of the few authors, Canadian authors, where I’ve read almost every single thing she’s ever written. It’s not even a love-hate relationship: I count a few of her books among my absolute favourites (Surfacing), and when I saw her at the IFOA a couple of years ago, it was one of the most entertaining readings I had ever been too. So, I bought Payback, years ago, I think, and it sat on the shelves. Atwood’s Massey lecture looks at the philosophical and literary implications of debt — what it means from a balanced perspective. This isn’t a book about the recession or about the failure of our monetary system but it’s about what it means to be in debt from a moral perspective.

I was honestly surprised at how much I enjoyed reading Payback. I actually learned a great deal about the idea of balance. Atwood takes a very thorough look at what defined debt throughout the ages — starting with early philosophical positions (there’s lots of talk of mythology) and ending with a modern-day take on Dickens’ character Scrooge (with all of the implications of how we are living today), Atwood’s point is simple: we can’t keep taking so much without giving something back… and if we don’t give it back, the universe will just take it.

Anyway, I don’t have much more to say about it — this is probably my shortest review ever. Balance is good. Taking advantage of our resources isn’t. Money is so much more than dollars and cents, and there’s a surprising amount of debt in literature. If I ever go back to grad school, what a fascinating thesis that would make.

READING CHALLENGES: Off the Shelf, naturally.

August 27th, 2010

#41 – No Way Down

Perhaps I should follow up my furious Franzen rant with another post about the state of publishing or some other issue floating around (and, believe me, if I was still remotely anonymous, I would). But, instead, I’m going to go back to basics: a book review. This week I took a break from guilty pleasure reading and read, well, more guilty pleasure stuff. Most people imagine armchair travel to be lovely, pretty memoirs like Eat, Pray, Yawn or the like. Instead, what I love is a truly good horror story incurred by a natural disaster happening at the top of a mountain. Yes, I love climbing disasters — I don’t know what it is about it, maybe the time I spent in Banff during my formative years scrambling up mountains, maybe it’s the sheer Titanic-ness of it all — the knowledge that the weather’s about to turn, something’s about to crack, someone’s about to fall, and no one will ever be the same again.

In 2008, eleven climbers died on K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. NY Times reporter Graham Bowley first saw the story flash across his screen as an assignment (I think) for the paper. He wrote so convincingly about it that it appeared on the front page and then he went on to realize that the story was so much larger than the paper could accommodate. The resulting effort, his book No Way Down, couples a little bit of the climbing history of K2 (it’s deathly grip!) alongside a detailed, poignant and utterly captivating look at what went wrong.

The weather was seemingly perfect on the assent. A record number of climbers advanced to the summit despite some epic problems getting up through a bottleneck of people who were having trouble at one particular point on the mountain. But as the aptly titled book suggests, the descent was problematic for many. Between glaciers breaking, avalanches, snapped ropes and leaving the summit simply too late, many of the climbers were trapped at high altitudes, which had disastrous consequences — deaths, frostbitten limbs, climbers getting lost coming down, bad weather, accidents — all contributed to the high toll the mountain took on that day.

It’s hard to explain what I find so fascinating about these kinds of stories. I’m hugely attracted to the idea of climbing to the top of a mountain even if health- and lifestyle-wise I’d never be able to do it. I’m also consistently amazed at the propensity for things to go wrong and that, still, hundreds of athletes still push themselves to the limits and then put their lives at risk in a very classic human versus nature scenario. Bowley’s careful to explain, both in his preface and his epilogue, how much research went into constructing the narrative. In his words, he tells the story as well as he could, but there’s always room for conjecture. It’s a sad, captivating story and even though it’s a terrible tragedy, it makes for one hell of a good read.

No Way Down coverage on NPR
Bowley’s original NY Times piece

August 5th, 2010

Summer Reading: A Catch Up Edition

I have a huge list of books to get caught up on in terms of keeping track of my reading here in the blog. As I doubt I’ll find the time to create individual posts for every book I’ve read since the beginning of July, I’m going to do one big post here, and then try very hard for the rest of the summer to update here more than once a month.

#24 – Shadow Tag
This was the very first book I read for my new book club. I’d read Louise Erdrich back in university and remembered enjoying Love Medicine very much. Shadow Tag, with its semi-autobiographic overtones and extremely dark subject matter, was an unsettling novel. It’s not even that you can’t trust the protagonist, or that she’s an unreliable narrator; it’s more that both Irene and her husband Gil are truly, completely unlikeable. They lie to one another, feed off each other’s insecurities, have a terrible, damaging relationship, and ultimately aren’t the best parents to their three children. The writing is terrific but I consistently go back and forth on the age-old debate in my head — can I really enjoy a book when I hate the characters? We had an amazing discussion about the novel, about their motivation to stay together, about the destructive nature of art in the book, and about both of their selfish, selfish behavior. It’s an intense novel, be prepared for that should you decide to delve in.

#25 – Freedom
I’m not sure how much to say about Franzen’s latest novel because I read a work galley (well, I begged to borrow a work galley and it’s my ONLY copy) and the book isn’t being published for another few weeks. However, I will say this — it’s a terrifically engaging chunk of a book that follows the lives of the Berglund family. Like The Corrections, Franzen writes so convincingly about American life that it’s impossible not to get emotionally involved in the lives of these characters. It’s an excellent novel.

#26 – I’d Know You Anywhere
The same goes for the new Laura Lippman. She’s one of my favourite commercial fiction writers — her stories are always page-turners and her characters always have issues to overcome that develop into rich, realistic plot lines — you never feel like she sacrifices anything for the story, it’s relentless. Her latest novel is no exception. Eliza Benedict has worked hard to create a very particular kind of life for herself — until the man who abducted her when she was a teenager tracks her down and asks something of her she isn’t necessarily prepared to give. The novel reminded me in a way of Barbara Gowdy’s Helpless in the way it gives a bird’s eye view of not only the victim, but the criminal as well. It’s a captivating novel — perfect for summer reading.

#27 – We Have Always Lived In The Castle
Oh my goodness I adored Shirley Jackson’s macabre, Gothic novel. This was another book club book and what an awesome choice it was. Merricat (Mary Katherine) Blackwood and her sister Constance live in a run-down old manor house with their Uncle Julian. Years ago her entire family was killed by a fatal dose of arsenic-laced strawberries during dinner. Constance, the elder sister, was accused of the crime, and then tried, but found innocent. However, the townspeople have never quite forgiven her, and so Merricat (an 18 year-old who acts far more like a 12 year-old) and Constance have somewhat shut themselves up against the world. That is, until their cousin Charles arrives and throws their world in chaos. It’s a delicious, deceptively simple novel, and we all raved about it at book club. I comped it to the best of Flannery O’Connor with even more edge, if that’s possible.

#28 – Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard
Richard B. Wright remains one of those Canadian authors, like Jane Urquhart or Michael Ondaatje, that I’ll read anything they write. If they wrote a grocery list, I’d probably read and enjoy it. His latest novel, Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard, feels like a departure, and that’s not a bad thing. While I loved October, I felt like it had a definite place in the Canadian canon — it was almost as if he was actively trying to write back to Hugh MacLennan. With this new novel, I feel like he’s moved into decidedly new territory. It’s a hybrid kind of novel — one part historical fiction (the book’s protagonist is the bastard daughter of Wm Shakespeare), one part typical literary fiction, and one part juicy page turner. Aerlene Ward has lived her entire life with a secret: William Shakespeare was her father. As she gets on in age, she feels the need to tell her story and enlists the help of Charlotte, the youngest daughter in the manor house where she’s been the housekeeper for all of her adult life. It’s a rich tale — both as its told and as it was lived — and Wright has a keen ear for Elizabethan London. The biggest issue that I have with so much historical fiction is the romance-novel-ness of them all. This book isn’t that, while I can see how it would appeal to the biggest fans of Philippa Gregory, it’s so much richer in how the historical details are integrated into the fabric of the story. These are strong, interesting women, and there’s an apt feminist critique to be explored upon a more educational reading of the novel. Anyway, I’ve got high hopes for this book for the fall — I really want many, many people to love it as much as I did. We’re doing a Savvy Reader read-along post for it that should be live in the next couple weeks.

#29 – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Like the rest of the universe, I finally went back and read the first of Steig Larsson’s ridiculously addictive series. I’m glad I did, if only to fully understand how all three books fit together, and to see how Lisbeth and Blomkvist actually meet for the first time. We watched the film the other night, and I found it almost better than the book — while definitely not as detailed, it was far more streamlined, which I appreciated. As much as I find these great books, great social experiments in how a book can “tip,” sometimes the writing is clunky, the dialogue terrible, and there’s just too much detail. And I enjoyed seeing the Swedish landscape if only to give myself a visual picture to accompany the reading experience in my head. I read this book on my iPad with the Kobo application and found that there were some layout issues with the text that made transitions a little awkward but overall I think it’s the perfect way of reading commercial fiction. It’s not a book that I’m dying to keep — it’s an impulse, something I want to read right now and steam through, and knowing I don’t have to pawn off a physical copy on a friend was a relief.

#30 – The Help
Now, this novel truly surprised me. From the cover, it screams “Oprah” and “Nicholas Sparks,” but because it’s my job to know what kinds of books sell like stink, I figured it would be another good one to try on my iPad. This time, I used the Kindle application, and I found it just that teeny bit superior to the Kobo (mainly in the fact that it gives an accurate idea of where you are in a book), but there’s really little difference between the two as a reading application for the basic stuff that I need (good bookmarks, easy navigation, etc). Annywaaay, The Help. I bawled like a baby by the end of it, found myself reading until 4 AM one night at the cottage when I couldn’t sleep and realizing it’s just a really good novel. Set in Jackson, Mississippi smack-dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, The Help entwines the stories of the young white women who form the “society” of the area with the black women who they consider their “help.” From debate over why separate bathrooms IN ONE HOUSE for the women who feed, clothe, bathe, and raise their children to Miss Skeeter’s desperate ‘Peggy in Mad Men-esque’ quest to get out of her Southern life entirely, the novel keeps you emotionally invested from beginning to end. Stockett writes convincingly from both perspectives and the payoff at the end was impeccable.

#31 – Locavore

When the iBookstore launched at the beginning of July, I bought a few of our books so I could make sure they worked. Sarah Elton’s look at the local food movement from a Canadian perspective had been on my TBR pile forever. I did a lot of work with her when the book first came out and she’s just such a lovely author (but that’s an aside). She has a very easy-going writing style and her way into the topic (from a pink sugar cookie made in China in her daughter’s loot bag) was both personal and intriguing. There were so many things that I didn’t know and so many interesting, new perspectives about the local food issues that Elton puts forth that I learned a lot. How wrong was my assumption that once I’d read Pollan and Kingsolver that there was nothing left to know about the locavore movement. This is a book for anyone remotely interested in the issues surrounding the food we eat — and even if you aren’t, it’s a great primer to get you started. But my favourite part of Elton’s perspective isn’t a holier than thou approach, it’s more “do the best you can; it all helps in the end.” And I feel like this suits my life — we buy local where possible, support farmer’s markets, grow our own veggies, and balance out the more exotic aspects of your eating with better choices. I LOVED this book.

#32 – The Lovers
I have so much respect and admiration for Vendela Vida. Not just because she leads an obviously envious life and is bloody gorgeous, but because she’s an exquisite writer whose craft I covet every time I read a sentence of hers. Yet, this novel disappointed me. It lacked the emotional resonance that reverberated so nicely through Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, and the tragic event posited by the jacket copy to “rock” the protagonist, Yvonne, to her core, felt contrived and even stereotypical when looked at in context. It felt very Hollywood, this novel, and maybe I was just expecting too much from Vida because I pushed her earlier book on every single person I know. So, in short, Yvonne, a middle-aged widow, visits Turkey, the site of her honeymoon, to try and figure out how to move on with her life. She’s had a good life, but one with issues, and she starts to unravel the more time she spends trying to ‘find’ herself in relation to who she once was: mother, teacher, wife. The setting, at once meant to invoke her past and perhaps spurn Yvonne into a sense of self-discovery, becomes exotic and strange to her. And then, things start to go very awry when she befriends a young Turkish boy visiting his grandmother. There could have been such a rich palette to explore so much in the book but Vida doesn’t drift beyond the superficial in a way. You never truly feel like you know Yvonne, and maybe that’s on purpose, but the whole novel felt incomplete to me, especially the ending.

#33 – Secrets of Eden
And, again, here’s another of my favourite novelists with new books that fell short of my expectations. I adore Chris Bohjalian’s books — even his critical misfires work for me, unlike many, many reviewers, I really liked the trippy nature of The Double Bind and didn’t even mind his last book, Skeletons at the Feast despite its truly awful cover. But Secrets of Eden, well, it failed to impress either with the moral premise underneath the story or by its storytelling. Like in Vida’s novel, the “twist” at the end felt very much like an M. Night Shyamalan film — far, far too apparent from too early on and really quite stereotypical for my tastes. The whole book felt like a Law and Order episode but without any convincing or interesting characters. I find the complex nature of religious characters in novels interesting — but I’ll turn to Marilynne Robinson when I want to explore it in more depth — Bohjalian used it to very obviously pit “good” against apparent “evil” and in this case it didn’t work. Oh, the plot, right: a reverend loses a member of his flock, a woman who had been abused by her husband, and becomes accused of the murder when she and said partner are found dead the morning after her baptism. Enter a very famous writer who has made plenty of money writing about angels. They become involved, which, of course, casts even more suspicion on the poor Reverend Stephen Drew. Yawn. Yes, I know, I’m being sarcastic, but the book was truly tedious in places. Anyway, nothing will stop me from reading Bohjalian, because I adore his fiction, but this just wasn’t the book for me.

#34 – The Big Short
Wow, was this a dynamo of a nonfiction book. Michael Lewis examines the financial crisis in such a detailed and fascinating way that it’s impossible NOT to think of the yahoos on Wall Street as crooks by the end of it. While the book has a LOT of technical jargon as it relates to the financial markets, it’s not remotely dry. In fact, it’s just the opposite — it’s utterly riveting and totally fascinating. He breaks down the few characters who managed to short the crisis even before it began, including a hedge fund owner whose driving characteristic is his Asperger’s, along with a few “outsider” funds who actually took the time to investigate the market and pull it apart at the seams — primarily to find the ways of making huge amounts of money from what they could see coming: a total collapse of the system. It’s incredible that the US government propped up the big investment houses, essentially rewarded them for their stupidity, and then they turned around and rewarded themselves with huge bonuses, and, well, got to all keep their jobs. Billions upon billions of dollars with hidden paper trails and bad trades are lost, unknown or hidden from the general public, just so we can keep the illusion that the big investment banks actually had any idea of what was happening. I’d highly recommend this to anyone remotely interested in why the US is such a mess these days — it’s just utterly captivating and you will shake your head in amazement that not a single person stopped the madness before it all collapsed. Anyway, it’s a great, great read.

Whew. That’s about it — I’m sure there are a couple of books that I’ve probably forgotten but that’s about the extent of my summer reading so far. I’m so behind in my reading in general this year that it’s nice to just have a big stack of books out of the way before the insanity of the fall creeps up on us.

February 12th, 2010

#9 – The Value of Happiness

The subtitle of Raj Patel‘s The Value of Nothing questions ‘why everything costs so much more than we think.’ It’s an intelligent, dense book that explores our modern society, its economic context, and the very real implications of our lifestyles. Patel sustains his main thesis, that the true value of goods and services are completely at odds with their prices as set out by the market, while people never give it a second thought. Patel wrote an amazing piece of added-value content for our Book Guide here that explains, in short, the kinds of material things we pay heavily for but that are relatively cheap.

I’m not going to lie, this isn’t an easy book to read — Patel looks at everything under a microscope, he digs deep into economic theory and pushes the reader to think hard about what he’s saying. The very idea that, as a society, we are blind to the terrible impact our consumerist ways are having on the world around us despite seeing it, literally, every day, is compelling. In ways, it’s easy for me to support Patel’s work. I believe in his politics, sit slightly to the left, and have already been convinced that we need to change as a society before we ruin everything. Like Patel, I believe the first step to change is concerted dialogue about the issues, exactly the kind of thinking that is represented here.

However, what really struck me about the book concern post-colonialism. It’s not surprising to me that issues with modern economics are so essentially tied up in old colonial models. We don’t think about it everyday. We don’t turn on our work blackberries and think, “hey, I’m exploiting the Congolese today.” Has anyone else out there read King Leopold’s Ghost? Hasn’t the Congo been through enough? But I can’t stop it — I don’t have a personal cellphone but I do have my BB and I use it all the time, every waking moment, and I don’t think twice about what went into building it or sourcing it or the power that it takes to use it. I send money every month to David Suzuki and the WWF to try and balance out my consumption. Somehow, I feel ashamed that I’m not doing enough.

You can’t be faint of heart when you read this book. You can’t expect to be unchanged. And you can’t imagine you’ll keep living your life as you had been living it. Once you know the true value of what we consume, the cost to human life, the cost to the planet, you’ll think hard and then you’ll think twice.

READING CHALLENGES: The Better You Read The Better You Get. Oddly, I’m, um, not actually finishing the books from my shelves. However, I do feel like reading more nonfiction has reminded me that it’s important to challenge yourself with smarty-smart material every once in a while. School’s good.

Read an excerpt of The Value of Nothing here.

January 23rd, 2010

#5 – In Defense of Food

Carrying forth with my “I should read more nonfiction. I’ll do it in January” mentality, I finished Michael Pollan’s excellent In Defense of Food this week. I know Foer’s critical of Pollan’s approach in Eating Animals, but I still find him to be the most logical, engaging food/environmental writer (and I don’t read widely, sorry!) that I’ve read in years.

The book has a simple edict: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Throughout its 200-odd pages, Pollan explains what he means by these simple statements. He defines what “food” is (it should be recognized by your ancestors, live in the outer edges of a grocery store, and grown) for people who may have been confused (or living under a rock), sets out simple ways to find it, and then encourages them to eat it (at a table, preferably).

The idea of becoming a selective omnivore never would have entered my mind five years ago. When our neighbour planted tomatoes and some herbs in our backyard I was so grossed out at the thought of eating something pulled right from the dirt that I poo-pooed the vegetables before even picking them. And then I tasted them. Now I can’t eat a pale, lifeless grocery store cucumber without longingly thinking about the ones that I’ve grown.

Your muscles have memory, and so do your taste buds, and Pollan’s so correct when he says that finding connection to your food by something as simple and inexpensive as a vegetable garden remains a resoundingly rewarding activity. My beans taste nothing like the waxy, protected grocery store bags of veggies I had to buy for Christmas. It might be a silly thing to say, but my crazy, intrusively kind neighbour changed my outlook on food completely. Then Pollan came along and gave me cause to shout.

While the book might linger just a little bit too long on the science and evolution bits, the idea that we’re getting it so fundamentally wrong on such a massive scale still catches my breath in my throat. Maybe we can change the world one seed at a time. Maybe we can’t. But I won’t stop digging in the dirt and doing what I can regardless.

#4 – The Happiness Project

Many, many years ago, after what felt like a lifetime of taking prednisone for the disease and suffering through the awful “induced psychosis” and resulting debilitating depression side effects, I began to explore the idea of happiness. My doctor recommended reading Mark Kingwell’s In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac, which I did, until I got about halfway through. It just wasn’t practical. I didn’t need an empirical exploration of what “happiness” was — I needed some magic lessons to lift the pressures of my troubled life and float me away on a magical river of self-understanding, satisfaction and, yes, intense happiness.

Like so many aspects of my (naive?) twenties, you have to grow up a little and realize that happiness isn’t something that magically appears. It takes hard work, it’s incremental, and it’s perhaps not even the point. Gretchen Rubin’s year-long experiment, her aptly titled The Happiness Project, comes to some of the same conclusions. Rubin doesn’t set out to radically renovate her life.

Instead, she took incremental steps to increase her happiness on a daily basis. She tried everything, from smiling yoga to starting a YA book club, and created a theme for each month in the year to centre and ground her expectations. Not everything worked. Which, I imagine, was to be expected, but I’m going to summarize, perhaps incorrectly, that the point of Rubin’s book wasn’t to just find new things in life that equated a happy pill — it was to try and experience organic growth around the goal of leading a happier life.

Yet, like Kingwell’s book, I found Rubin’s to be also somewhat unsatisfying. She’s got a sweet, chatty tone to her writing, did massive amounts of research, and put herself out there (warts and all as they say) in an intensely personal way. Yet, the book, on the whole, felt a little superficial. And perhaps that’s just me as a reader; I did want some broader, philosophical implications from studying happiness for a year. But, in Rubin’s defense, that’s not at all what she set out to do. There’s a lot of hows in Rubin’s book, and not a lot of whys. She’s a goal-orientated person (and loves her gold stars) and therefore her quest for happiness consists of plenty of goal-orientated activities.

When it comes right down to it, maybe I’m looking for a balance between both books in my own search for understanding — a book that takes happiness outside of the person, looks at it from a different perspective, what does it mean and why it’s important, and then provides some guidance about how to get there. There’s an undercurrent to The Happiness Project that equates, in my mind anyway, that the end result is somehow deserved — but I know I’m reading my own thoughts into her project. The idea that by being happier herself Rubin can then infect others with these lightened feelings seems simple enough. But, like I said before, the book feels a bit too much like a happiness “to do” list to me. Maybe I wanted Rubin to dig a little deeper (why did she have so much clutter to begin with, what’s the emotional resonance behind any of the projects she embarked upon over the year) — the book felt rushed to me: did this, check, tried that, check, improved this, check, now on to the next thing.

However, I’m not even going to remotely suggest that it’s not a good idea to spend a year trying to a) improve yourself, b) improve the lives of your family or c) try to make it through life with a lighter, happier load. For this, I tip my hat to Gretchen and her year-long quest to be herself, sing in the mornings, and do what she loves. And also, I say a hearty hallelujah to the author for setting out from the beginning the differences between suffering from a depression (Rubin’s not at all depressed) and that all encompassing sadness, and the meaningful way she wants to set out to improve her life on a daily basis. Not once does she mix up “sadness” and call it “depression.” The slippage of the word depression into the lexicon whereby it becomes interchangeable to ‘sadness’ enrages me.

Annywaaay, Rubin’s clear, honest and forthright; she’s intelligent, a keen reader, and doing good in the world by helping the many readers of her successful blog — those are also things wherein I cannot find fault. But maybe for her next year, she might explore a little self-help Beth Lisick-style, because Helping Me Help Myself still remains my favourite of the happiness-seeking memoir genre.

January 13th, 2010

#2 – Eating Animals

In preparation for our Vegan Smackdown 2010 (here’s our very first video podcast), I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals this past weekend. I’ve been a “selective omnivore” and a “passive vegetarian” for the majority of my life. Despite turning vegetarian when I was about twelve (in a shocking moment of tween tempestuous in response to my mother serving me a piece of almost-rare roast beef), I’ve always eaten fish (albeit with no regularity), and started eating chicken (from Rowe Farms or the Healthy Butcher) about a year ago.

At first, it was about the animals — we grew up listening to “Meat is Murder” and were very into Morrisey. Then, when I was diagnosed with the disease and learned that too much protein was terribly hard on your kidneys, that sort of clenched it for me. The environmental concerns came last — for, like Safran Foer, I still had idyllic images of farmers in mind when I thought of chickens, cows and pigs. Fast Food Nation opened my eyes a little. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was also good. But Safran Foer’s book has had me thinking and mulling over my eating choices for days.

Sure, he’s making a point. Sure, he wants people to become vegetarians, that much is obvious. But even though I realize I’m being pursuaded by an incredibly convincing narrative, there are truths about this book that are unavoidable. We, as a society, do not think, properly debate with ourselves, about where things come from. We consume. We package. We shop. We eat. We sleep. We get up and do it all over again. And as so much of our lives has been managed for us by giant companies whose only responsibility seems to be to their shareholders, it seems impossible to try to step outside and make a difference.

Factory farming
, as its described in the book, is abhorrent. The socio-economic, environmental and philosophical implications of being so separate from that which sustains us can’t but have an irrevocable impact on human society. That’s not to mention the impossible suffering that the animals who give their lives to ensure we get up, walk around, go to work, entertain ourselves and keep us healthy endure. Yes, I like to think I buy responsible meat (from a local butcher who sources from local farms when at the cottage; from The Heathy Butcher or Rowe’s in the city), I still can’t get my head around the fact that industry is ruining the sheer sustainability of our lives, of my nephew’s life.

The fact that we are destroying the ocean at record-breaking pace to keep shrimp on the table and frozen in aisles of the grocery store makes me furious. The fact that hundreds of thousands of species are decimated by fishing techniques makes me want to row entire populations out to the middle of the ocean so they can see what soon won’t be there. Imagine not seeing the whales in Tofino? Imagine sea horses being a thing of encyclopedias? I can’t. I don’t want to. Words matter. Calling senseless killing “by-product” doesn’t erase the fact that for every piece of fish on the table, hundreds needlessly litter the oceans because of impatient and irresponsible companies looking to make a profit. Is there sustainable fish to eat? I think I’m going to turn to Taras Grescoe’s Bottomfeeder for the answer. But, until then, I will not eat another piece of fish.

After our two-week Vegan Smackdown comes to a close, I’ll probably still continue to selectively eat what little chicken I do eat — but I’ll never buy it in a grocery store. I’ll never not take the time to make a separate trip to Rowe’s or the Healthy Butcher. And, it’s not like I do this anyway, but I certainly won’t be eating any chicken I absolutely don’t know the providence of.

I thought I was doing well by gardening. After all, growing my own food has given me a solid understanding of how much hard work goes in to keeping a garden that will actually feed me and my husband for most of the summer. It’s not easy. It’s worth celebrating every time a pull fresh green beans and steam them up for dinner. But knowing that the butter my RRHB smothers them with was made using factory farmed milk would turn their taste sour in my mouth. How can I avoid butter for the rest of my life? Is buying organic butter enough? Is it enough to do that small thing?

I don’t have any answers to the numerous questions the book brought to the forefront. It a persuasive, thoughtful, artful (if repetative in places) work that had me hunkered down when I should have been cleaning the house in preparation for my brother’s birthday. Here’s the thing — I’m an easy one to convince. I was already headed in the right direction. Here’s hoping that Jonathan Safran Foer finds an audience for his book outside of people like me, and his book can make a difference.

READING CHALLENGES: I’m continuing all of my 2009 challenges because I didn’t finish a single one. Here’s a book for The Better You Read, The Better You Get theme I set up last year.

November 12th, 2009

#60 – Long Past Stopping

When the US presented this book at conference a world and a half ago, I was totally taken with the cover. The idea that the son of Jack Canfield, the author of those (ridiculous?) Chicken Soup for the Soul books, became a heroin addict and lived to tell the tale was intriguing. I did two things I never do: 1) judged a book by its cover and 2) picked up the book solely based on the fact that its blurb intrigued me. And trust me when I say I’ve got some issues with a book blurb. So much so that I rarely read them and almost never pick up the book because of them.

Annnywaaay. Oran Canfield’s roughly my age but we’ve had two very different lives. First of all, he grew up with a fiercely intelligent mother (that’s not so different from me) who pretty much kept him outside of your typical societal norms. He was raised by libertarians, went to an anarchist boarding school, joined the circus for a while (and competed as a juggler), and was often left with individuals who had questionable parenting skills yet nonetheless took part in forming him as he grew older. Secondly, his father left the family when he was very young and before his brother, Kyle, was born. Lastly, there’s that whole heroin addict situation. Oh, and then there’s the whole his dad became a multi-millionaire thingy too.

His memoir, Long Past Stopping, not unlike Dry by Augusten Burroughs, presents addiction in a harrowing yet utterly matter-of-fact way which makes it impossible not to get pulled into his story. There’s irony in how addictive these kinds of memoirs are — how easy it is to just keep reading as the hero (or heroine) moves from fix to fix. Gets themselves deeper and deeper into the black hole when they’d much rather be with that great girl that’s finally showing them the time of day. Also, it might just be me, but it’s so much easier to read addiction stories than it is to watch them (like say Intervention). There’s a level of separateness once you know the author’s gone through it and come out the other side. Also, Canfield’s a survivor. He doesn’t set out to get hooked on heroin. In fact, his introduction to the drug seems innocent rather than ominous, and the practical nature of how he starts shooting (he’s simply wasting too much of the drug by smoking it) seems almost blase when you read it.

The tone of this book is consistently infused with his infectious, intelligent sense of humour. And while the writing might not be Nobel-prize worthy (I have to admit I felt the dialogue was particularly weak), it’s impossible not to be interested in this book from start to finish. I’m willing to forgive things that I don’t normally (like weak dialogue) when it comes to this book (because, let’s face it, I’m a snob) primarily because the story itself, his life, is just so damn fascinating. And I’m willing to bet anyone else who picks up this book will end up with a Totally Inappropriate Crush on its author too. Just try it and see if you can put it down after browsing a few chapters. The structure of the book is smart too — it vacillates between his childhood and his adulthood in a way that breaks up the more dramatic, traumatic moments, and it’s certainly a relief when he finally finds his way off the junk.

Never say I don’t use my power for good. Here’s a quirky and fun road trip guest blog post he wrote for us over on The Savvy Reader. And to get a sense of his sense of humour, watch this video.

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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