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This world is ruining my reading

I’m so tired lately.

A lot of people have been saying they’re tired. It’s hard to get up every day and read about what horrible new thing has made “normal” move another step towards “intolerable”. We’re all frogs in the pot at the moment, aren’t we? (Cue Bruce Cockburn: The Trouble With Normal Is It Always Gets Worse) (an excellent song, in case you’re unfamiliar.)

Since the unfortunate event in the US last November, I’ve found my reading has been seriously thrown off. Normally I’m happy to read weird things, dystopias, things with sad endings, things that put characters in difficult situations, things that twist my brain in strange new ways, just for fun. Right now: nope.

I keep putting down books whenever they hit an uncomfortable bit or a challenging bit or an unpleasant moment. I had to create a whole new shelf on Goodreads for “on pause”.

For example, I’ve been struggling exceedingly slowly through 33 Jours, someone’s story of fleeing the Nazis as they entered France in WWII, and I have to keep putting it down not because the French is difficult — it’s delightfully clear and elegant — but because I just can’t deal with it. I had to leave off Perdido Street Station at a mere 4% read because every page oozed or squelched or was in some way deeply squalid and/or sordid. I keep thinking I should re-read The Handmaid’s Tale since my daughter has it as assigned reading this year (her English teacher deliberately brought it back into the curriculum), but — no. Rome fell. The Dark Ages were a thing, and a thing that’s a little too close for comfort at the moment.

I fully acknowledge it’s pathetic. I have no doubt they are excellent books. But not now.

Sales of romances are up, apparently. I’m not the only one who just can’t even. Tina Fey’s sheetcake sketch was as tone-deaf as the critics noted, but still — there was a kernel of something there, wasn’t there. If sales of Sauvignon Blanc aren’t also up I’ll… I’ll finish this bottle, so I shall.

Of course we’re tired. You can’t do all the invisible emotional labour of keeping yourself, your relationship, your work, your family all going in an uncertain world AND keep the US and North Korea from nuking each other, every single day, among news of disastrous new laws and weather-related disasters and mass shootings and other bits of startling horror. It’s too freaking much to ask; one can only hold so many airplanes in the air with the power of one’s mind and firmly clenched stomach muscles.

And so the ability to read heavy — in the figurative, not literal sense — books is temporarily misplaced, it seems.

To be clear: I’m talking about recreational reading here. The kind of essential reading that helps you tackle privilege and patriarchy and colonialism and other -isms is difficult and important and should not and cannot be tossed aside to handle later at one’s convenience, but that is in the whole other category of Must-Do, not the category of Recreational. Those things I continue to read and take seriously as part of personal development because it seems to me that getting more people on board with those ideas will move us forward societally, assuming we manage to avoid The Dark Ages, The Sequel.

So let us praise Soothing Books for recreational purposes, lest we all languish in despair and ennui. You know: books in which the characters make their way through a world that is reasonably orderly and reasonably far from slipping into The Dark Ages, The Sequel. Or is at least distractingly engrossing and/or has some hot sex in it or something.

Let me make a few recommendations.

First: re-reading, generally. I am dealing poorly with the unknown. Perhaps you are too. Re-reading solves that neatly.

Second: chatty cookbooks, the kind that mostly talk about cooking, food, ingredients, and (preferably) foreign locales in a way that allows one to both fantasize about living [wherever] but also cook [whatever] right now at home. Example: David Lebovitz’ My Paris Kitchen. You can pretend you’re in Paris but enjoy your non-microscopic non-Paris kitchen and cook his recipes today if you want. I’m going to start with the scalloped potatoes with blue cheese and roasted garlic, which sounds soothing in and of itself. Or there’s Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First if you prefer ideas to recipes.

Third: romances, as mentioned above. They may have uncomfortable moments but they’re usually short and trivial, and the books virtually never end badly (I see people reading Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance [not a romance!] on the subway sometimes and I want to tap them on the shoulder and let them know it ends badly — VERY BADLY INDEED yes yes I am a bit scarred ok). Recommendations: anything, really, but my friend Josie Kerr’s books would be a pleasant place to start if you want romances involving people over thirty years old and excellent depictions of consent. Going back to authors like Georgette Heyer is another solid idea. If you don’t mind some dragons and things, Katie MacAlister.

Fourth: period pieces. Some online friends recommended the Miss Read books to me and they are pretty much the Platonic ideal of Soothing (assuming one can overlook the British class system, which can be, I know, a substantial ask). Georgette Heyer again. I’m also extremely partial to Patrick O’Brian’s 20-book Aubrey/Maturin series, ideally as audiobooks. They are just the thing. Jane Austen, too. (Avoid Dickens.)

Fifth: Alternative realities, whether sci-fi or fantasy or whatever. The trick here is to avoid the unpleasant/dystopic ones. Jo Walton’s Thessaly trilogy suits the bill here, and Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books within the Discworld series. A lot of reality just now reflects Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to me — metanationals, political bickering, climate change disasters – so I haven’t re-read those, but those with stronger dispositions than mine might enjoy the parallels and the eventually optimistic future view. Similarly, Ender’s Game (but for the love of all that’s holy don’t read the sequels). Harry Potter, of course.

Sixth: Mysteries might work for some people, for example Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, or Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series, or if you can tolerate some alternative Hells and some squelchiness, Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen series. With mysteries you know there will be unpleasantness but it will be predictable and resolved by the end of the book, for the most part.

Seventh: Books from cultures remote from your own might work, although it’s hard to screen those in advance for potential sudden unpleasantness. Americanah is one suggestion. Books from India and South/Central America are riskier, I find.

Things I have found that, for me, are unhelpful:

  • Anything reality based, viz., 33 Jours
  • Anything that focuses on capitalism (Michael Lewis) or the environment
  • Nonfiction, except maybe memoirs of rock stars or actors or whatnot
  • Anything Russian, pretty much (sorry)
  • Anything that’s intended to be purely humorous (I’m not in the right mood and it all strikes me as facile)

There’s nothing wrong with purely escapist recreational reading if it’s what keeps us all from running stark mad. I think we’ll just have to go with that for a while. The heavy books will be there waiting when we’re ready to pick them up again.

In Which I Read Stuff: Kids’ Books

A while ago I was chatting with someone about books and bookstores and all that sort of thing and the question was asked: so, what do I read? I answered rather stupidly — “um, not bestsellers” or somesuch — but it did remind me that I’ve fallen out of the habit of posting about books, so I’ll start to correct that now.

What do I read? The honest answer is, anything that holds still long enough for my eyes to focus on it. But I don’t have a lot of time (and even less money) for physical books, so — while I’m being honest here — I’ll admit that most of my “reading” lately has been either children’s books or audiobooks. (Although I was recently given some excellent books for my birthday, which I’m very much enjoying and which I will talk about later.)

I read a lot of kids’ books because my daughter brings them home and she has pretty fun taste in books. I like to get a sense of what she likes so I can buy her books she’ll enjoy. Given the amount of travelling she does each summer, I like to send her and/or whoever’s flying with her with lots of new books. Also, she’s a Talker so it helps to have read what she’s read if I would like to understand much of what she’s telling me.

So on that front, I can recommend Patricia C. Wrede’s four Enchanted Forest books, which have dragons and princesses and things but which are far more clever than that brief summary implies. The protagonist in the first book is a princess who flees to the dragons in search of a less vapid life and then has to explain to dozens of would-be rescuers that no, she does NOT wish to be rescued and would prefer to remain Chief Cook and Librarian to the dragons, thankyouverymuch. They’re quite fun. Fast reads in book form, and well done as full-cast audiobooks as well.

I’ve also dipped into the Dear Canada books. D calls them Canadian History Propaganda books, which is fair. M has been bringing them home from the library of her own accord. It’s a whole serious of deeply wholesome books purporting to be diaries of girls at various points in Canadian history. These I find a bit tedious but M loves them and they’re not horrible. Faint praise, but there you go. Harmless stuff.

Collectively we’ve also been enjoying the How to Train Your Dragon series, which are full of goofiness and farting and so on. The sample sentences in Dragonese are worth the price of admission.

The child has also enjoyed Kenneth Oppel’s bat books. I’ve only read the first one, and I admit I bought it for M on the basis of 1 degree of separation from Ken Oppel plus good reviews, but they are indeed good books. M’s read all of them and they led to much swooping about and pretending to be a bat, which I enjoyed much more than the princess phase, so there you go.

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How I hate it when people live up to stereotypes.

I look at the G20 coverage and that’s all I see. We had people marching peacefully for good causes, whose messages will now never be heard. We had the riot-helmeted cops marching in rows. We had idiots who like to break things and nobody stopped them despite 900 arrests — at a billion dollars of security, that’s $1,111,111 per arrest, never mind that the vast majority had charges dropped and were released in short order. We had media covering the people who break things instead of the people with interesting things to say. We had protest-tourists who stood around uselessly watching things go pear-shaped, tweeting and snapping photos. And we had millions of us who just stayed home and let it all happen.

I hate it all — well, all except the folks who were marching peacefully and using their democratic right to have their say. I’m fully in support of peaceful demonstrations.

But how can the Toronto police, who normally let small children pat the noses of horses in riot gear, who line Yonge and high-five a million people and politely confiscate open beers whenever we win any sort of sports thing, who happily close off part of University Avenue for two weeks while Tamils have their say in front of the US Consulate, have allowed themselves to be such immense jerks?

How can anyone — dressed in name-brand black outfits (note Fila pants) and Kevlar body armour — have such an overwhelming sense of entitlement that they think randomly smashing up other people’s stuff is either fun or OK?

How can anyone — given the presence of fifty or more other nearby observers — stand there blinking like sheep and watch someone smash stuff up? I mean, look at these people in the background; they’re pretending it’s TV:

Shame, shame. Also, as we would say in college: WEAK. Dudes, whatever kind of society you’re advocating for, count me the hell OUT. That kind of crap is why I stayed home.

I think that was probably our collective mistake, giving in to the imposed fear and inconvenience and failing to say “eff it, I’m a Canadian, this is my city, and I’m going to continue to live my life,” going to our offices and restaurants and shows and walking our dogs and generally continuing life downtown despite the lack of transit or the presence of eleventy-gazillion police in riot gear or whatever. After all, what’s the point of inflicting house arrest on ourselves in the name of security? Would this all have unfolded differently if we-the-people in our millions didn’t collectively abdicate our responsibility to be ourselves, thus leaving downtown a howling wasteland / combat zone where everyone present fell into one of four or five stereotypical roles? What if we kept the focus squarely where it belongs in a democracy such as ours: on freedom-to instead of freedom-from?

It makes no sense. None of it makes any sense. And it’s all very disappointing, to put it mildly.

THIS is my Toronto: police marching WITH today’s anti-brutality protestors.

This is also my Toronto, courtesy of a friend on Facebook (and if anyone runs across a link to the video, which was apparently on tonight’s news, I’d love to add it) edit – here it is:

…just saw what is probably my favourite video of the mayhem in Toronto this weekend: Some guy in a black shirt & bandana smashes the window of downtown electronics store and grabs something. This Joe walking by in a polo shirt & knapsack tackles him, takes away the thing, throws it back in the store, then just gets up and continues walking the direction he was going.

Thanks, Joe. You may have been the only honorable person in Toronto this weekend.

Chocolate-mint ice cream

I mentioned this recipe on Facebook and got requests, so here it is. It’s adapted from the KitchenAid ice-cream maker book, but of course any ice-cream maker will work.

I should mention that making your own ice cream, although pretty easy, is a vanity project and not a money-saving one. This is REALLY good ice cream but it is not cheap to make. It is not the slightest bit low-fat. It creates an impressive pile of dirty dishes. And it takes three days.

This recipe makes about two litres.

Before starting, make sure you have room in your fridge for a large bowl of proto-ice-cream. Also, if you have to put some part of your ice-cream-maker in the freezer for pre-chilling and it isn’t already there, do it now.

Day 1
Step 1:
1/2 cup whipping cream
120g mint-flavoured dark chocolate, cut into chunks. You want good-quality chocolate here — hit your local yuppie gourmet food emporium. If you can’t get mint-flavoured chocolate, buy good dark chocolate and add a bit of peppermint extract.

  • Put the whipping cream and chocolate in a small saucepan and heat over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the chocolate melts. Remove from heat and set aside.

Step 2:
2 cups table cream

  • In a medium saucepan, stirring often, heat the cream over medium heat until very hot and steamy but not boiling. Remove from heat and set aside.

Step 3:
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
8 egg yolks (put the whites in the fridge and pretend you’re going to make meringues with them)

  • Combine the sugar and cocoa in a small bowl and set aside.
  • Put the egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer. Use the wire whip attachment. On low speed (speed 2) gradually add the sugar mixture and mix about 30 seconds, until well blended and slightly thickened.
  • Continuing on low speed, VERY gradually add the chocolate mixture and then the cream. Mix until very well blended.
  • Return the mixture to the medium saucepan. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until small bubbles form around the edge and the mixture is steamy, but don’t boil.

Step 4:
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
4 teaspoons vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt

  • Transfer the hot mixture to a large bowl.
  • Stir in the whipping cream, vanilla, and salt.
  • Cover and chill thoroughly (at least overnight, preferably 24 hours)

Day 2
Step 5:
200g mint-flavoured milk or dark chocolate, chopped into tiny bits. I use leftovers from Step 1 here plus some Laura Secord Frosted Mint bars for this part, mostly because I like a bit of green in my mint stuff.

  • Follow your ice-cream maker’s directions to turn the chilled mixture into ice cream. Add the chocolate bits in the last couple of minutes of stirring.
  • It’ll now be the consistency of soft-serve, so transfer it to containers and freeze it overnight for the best texture. In the meantime, content yourself with licking all the ice-cream-maker parts clean.

Day 3
Step 6:

  • Eat!
Desperately sad. Easily avoided.

I have to say something about this desperately sad story, in which two children, non-swimmers both, drowned and died along with their mother, also a non-swimmer, who had been supervising them as they swam in a hotel pool (without a lifeguard). It seems that one or both girls somehow got into trouble and the mother then jumped in to try to save them. All of them died.

What I have to say is this: do not ever swim without a qualified lifeguard watching you. And if you do, quite literally the last thing you may do is jump in to save someone. By doing so you are worsening the emergency: now there are two people in trouble instead of one.

Drowning people don’t look like the stereotype, with lots of thrashing and waving arms and shouting and all that. People who truly can’t swim often are just below the surface. You might see their arms — they might look like they’re climbing a ladder — but they don’t come far out of the water. They’re quiet, not calling out. They’re using all their effort to try to reach the surface. They are desperate and they are not rational.

And these folks are dangerous. Unless you really know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t go anywhere near a drowning person. They are so freaked out, so detached from normal perception, so focused on their own survival that they will do anything — ANYTHING — to keep themselves at the surface. They are incredibly strong from adrenalin, and they will push you under and keep you under the surface of the water if climbing up your body will help them stay on the surface. Even a small child can drown you this way, even if you are a grown adult and a good swimmer.

Sometimes, drowning people don’t struggle. In a certain percentage of cases people just quietly slide under the surface. Even then if you jump in and try to grab them, if they’re still conscious they can push you under and kill you. They don’t mean to do it, but they will.

Treat drowning people like you would a wild animal you were trying to rescue. Pretend they have fangs and claws and poisonous barbs.

The usual algorithm to follow when considering a rescue is (with variations, but this is the simplest to remember):

  1. Talk – sometimes all the person needs is a calming voice, reassurance and guidance to help them reach safety.
  2. Reach – reach out to the person with an object — reaching pole, flutterboard, towel, paddle, pool noodle, piece of clothing — anything! If you absolutely must use your own body, lie down on your stomach so the drowning person can’t pull you in.
  3. Throw – throw the person a buoyant object such as a flutterboard or ring buoy and talk them in or pull them in. If you’re using a ring buoy, don’t forget to stand on the end of the rope when you throw it so it doesn’t ALL head out to sea (I always forget this important point).
  4. Row – use a boat to get to them, have them grab the stern end of the boat, and row them to shallow water,
  5. Go – swim out to them with a buoyant object. Stop a few metres away. Push the object to them with your foot. Keep well away. Talk to them reassuringly and guide them to shore.
  6. Tow – swim out to them with any object — a buoyant one if you can get one, but otherwise anything – piece of clothing, towel, whatever. The point is just to keep some distance between you. Have them hold one end of the object. Hold the other end and tow them to safety. If they start to come at you (by crawling up the object, for example), let go and swim a short distance away. Talk to them and see if you can get them to calm down and stop trying to kill you.
  7. and then if all else fails, Carry, which you should only ever do if you are trained to do so. If you aren’t trained in how to safely touch a drowning person, don’t do it. Run for help instead.

In a pool situation, such as the one referenced above in which all three people died, there is virtually never a reason for someone who is not a trained lifeguard to go in the water to rescue someone. Pools are always equipped with reaching and throwing assists. Always. More than one. There will probably be a reaching pole on a wall, a ring bouy on another wall, and various pool noodles, flutterboards, and other buoyant objects around. Use these. Don’t lose your head and leap in.

If you have children, or if you cannot swim yourself, as a first step for everyone I recommend the Swim to Survive program, because you can never tell when you may end up in deep water. It pays to be prepared, even minimally prepared. The Star has been promoting this program recently.

As the Kaianad/Yasmin family so tragically demonstrated this week, non-swimmers should never, ever be “supervising” non-swimmers in the water. Even if you are a good swimmer, you never know when you’re going to bonk your head, inhale water unexpectedly, get tangled in seaweed, get a cramp, or any number of other minor issues that could become fatal if no help is available.

So swim only in places where you know a trained person is watching. Please.

What IS that scary thing?

M: Daddy, what is that?
D: It’s a tie.
M: It is?
D: I understand how you might not recognize it. I haven’t worn one since… uh…

(We pause to consider this question. Someone’s wedding? Maybe? We can’t recall any recent funerals…)

D: … well, I haven’t worn one for a long time.
M: How do you wear it?
D: Pretend I am wearing a shirt (demonstrates bare-chested tie-tying prowess, with only one false start)
M: Huh. That’s complicated.

Tie is removed and put on the bed, where a cat is most interested by its sudden appearance and starts to creep up on it.

Me: Dude, that’s a tie. Don’t sit on it. Fur is not a necessary component of ties. (Attempts to move cat.)

Cat: (jumps back about three feet in 0.1 nanoseconds) WTF? There’s a SNAKE over there and you gotta go sneaking up behind me and touching me without warning like that? Geez, woman! Aaaaaa! Oh, my heart! I think I need a nap now. zzzzzzz

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Of record collections and cabinetry

Quotation of the Day for June 30, 2008

“It’s no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently or if your favorite films wouldn’t even speak to each other if they met at a party.”

– Nick Hornby

Back a million years ago when my record collection kept to itself, I used to file them in the order I acquired them. This made perfect sense to me — if you want The Smiths, check the shelf of stuff I bought in 1986 — but of course it was utterly impenetrable to anyone else. I think it took several years of cohabitation before I was talked into blending our collections, going with the more conventionally sensible (but soulless!) alphabetic scheme of organization. The collections seem to agree well enough.

Our film choices would definitely speak to each other if they met at a party. “My Tiger Claw beats your Drowning Monkey,” one would say, and the other would say “No! Drowning Monkey is the best kung fu! Die, fool!” and off they’d rumble until Kung Fu Mom stepped in to trounce them both.

I am recording this here as solid evidence that we do, in our house, generally get along, as we contemplate the possibility that if we want our kitchen installed before the middle of August, we may have to do it ourselves. Like, together. Because it’s hard to hang wall cabinets solo. Stupid booked-up Ikea installers…

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They can. They just won’t.

Here are the tracks left by one of the sidewalk snow plows by a park in my neighbourhood.

You know, the plows that “won’t fit” on the sidewalks in front of people’s houses, but somehow manage to fit on the bits of identical sidewalks adjacent to city property — parks, schools, bus stops….

Evidence that sidewalk plows CAN fit on my neighbourhood's sidewalks

As Spacing says:

The real reason is that the old pre-amalgamation City of Toronto didn’t plough sidewalks, and the city can’t afford the extra equipment or manpower it would take to extend the ploughing throughout the central area. Which is fair enough, but don’t pretend it can’t be done — admit it just won’t be done.

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Good point

Quotation of the Day for January 5, 2008

“Because it does not take much courage to fight when you still believe you can win. What takes real courage is to keep fighting when all hope is gone.”

– Deqing, Shaolin monk, explaining why heroes in Western action movies (who usually succeed) are less heroic than heroes in Chinese action movies (who usually die). Quoted by Matthew Polly in his memoir American Shaolin, about studying martial arts in China.

I could pretend that’s the reason why I like kung-fu movies, but in reality I think I like them because of the Kung-Fu Mom characters, who inevitably kick some impressive ass.

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Dreaming of a Pink Christmas

I’m sure anyone reading this has heard my rant about Toys R Gender Apartheid. The place drives me nuts and I end up cursing myself every time I spend money there. But here’s a nice piece out of the UK’s “the f-word” that manages to say the same things but without all the swear words I inevitably insert in my rant:

It is probable that some people see past stereotypes. However, what has been established in research is that people tend to live up or down to the expectations that are communicated to them. A number of studies have revealed that there is pressure on individuals to behave in stereotyped ways and these behaviour patterns are generally equated with social acceptance. We can all remember what it is like at school, never in our lives do we feel more pressure for social acceptance. Female children are fed expectations from the toy industry daily and we cannot pretend they have no effect.

However I don’t necessarily think a particular conspiracy in the toy industry exists to repress girls, but rather that companies think only of profits. Therefore products are created that the human brain will recognise most easily and buy most readily. The toy makers and advertisers ‘amplify’ the perceived differences between the genders in order to quickly communicate with its desired audience. In an experiment where children viewed ten toy adverts once the children could identify the target audience every single time. The target audience of boys or girls are very obvious to children and make the products easy to understand and therefore easy to sell, but the unpleasant side-effect of this is there is an implication of whether the product is suitable for them or not depending on their gender.

A good seasonal reminder to give your business to small, thoughtful toy retailers, assuming you have access to some.

I has a LOLcode


(From here. Lolcode specs here.)

Hmm, the code tag is malfunctioning. If it’s all left-justified to you, please pretend it’s properly indented.

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QOTD for March 12:

“When he was younger Mr Phillips had hated meetings. Or at least he had once he had got over the grown-up feeling, the warm glow of inclusion, of being invited to his first meeting with his first employers, Grimshaw’s. Children and students didn’t have meetings; only adults, serious employed people had them. So at the start there was the sense of being a big boy now. But Mr Phillips soon came to dread the whole business of sitting around a table with colleagues pretending to decide things. He hated the rooms in which meetings took place, with their horrible large tables and nasty chairs, with arms for the important people at the ends of the room, and the dank smell of the company coffee on the hotplate, and people’s briefcases, calculators, pencils, notebooks, agendas, personal organizers, beepers, copies of last meeting’s minutes, all of it. Most of all he hated the feeling that they were all impostors or impersonators, and with it the feeling that they were conspiring together to kill time, so that every second in the meeting was being wilfully murdered, bludgeoned to death.”

John Lanchester, from his novel Mr Phillips.

(I don’t hate meetings all that much, so long as I can scribble. Love the notion of meetings murdering time, though.)

Tea party

Tea party

Originally uploaded by morecoffeeplease.

Maddy was given a teeny-tiny china tea set by Honorary-Grandma E. as an early birthday present, so we’ve been having pretend-tea several times a day.

The good thing about pretend tea is that it doesn’t matter if you spill it. Plus, slurping spilled pretend tea out of the tiny saucer lets one make rude slurpy noises but without the mess.

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Triumphant egg-hunter


Originally uploaded by morecoffeeplease.

A bit belated, but here’s a picture of our easter-egg hunt. This was Take II of the hunt — I snuck outside and hid 30 of the small foil-covered eggs, but 45 minutes later when we went outside to hunt for them, all but three had vanished, presumably eaten by squirrels. Fortunately Maddy took this in good humour. We had more chocolate in the house, so she agreed to let me pretend to be the Easter Bunny.

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