Grey Hair, Don’t Care

I got my first grey hair at seventeen. After screeching in horror and pulling it out, I found two more the following week. At that point I began surreptitiously colouring my hair with a black semi-permanent rinse. I was late to the hair colouring game in the 1980s, mostly living with mousy brown hair (and the occasional sneaky rinse because my father disapproved of hair colour) until I moved to Toronto a year or two later.

In the interim, I had a variety of silly mid-80s haircuts with long bangs that hung in my eyes, leaving greasy marks on my glasses (think Dale Martindale from Images in Vogue). These ranged from a brush cut to a diagonal shaved line across the back of my head with floppy asymmetrical bangs on one side. I worked in a hospital at the time and many of the older patients who had been flappers back in the day would chase after me to pat the teddy bear fuzz on my neck and reminisce about their own bobbed hair in the 1920s.

When I moved to Toronto, the first thing I did was dye my hair a bright cherry red. It’s been some version of that shade for thirty years with a few digressions into black, black cherry, and bleached white, which I maintained for one the summer until it started falling out in big chunks.

At one point shortly before I turned forty, I tried to let my grey hair grow out, hoping there was enough grey to have actual grey hair and not just that dishwater colour that brown-haired folks suffer through as they go grey. It was about 50/50 grey to brown at that point and I got to about two inches of growth before it was clear that the grey and mousy brown together made my hair look like it was the colour of one of those horrible beige trench coats most often worn by flashers. To quote the artist Sue Kreitzman, “Don’t wear beige, it might kill you.” When I dyed it back to red, friends remarked on how washed out the grey/beige combo had made me look. When I asked why they hadn’t said anything their reply was, “We thought you liked it and didn’t want to insult you.” I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

Over time, as those sneaky grey hairs multiplied, it was harder and harder to keep the red red. I tried different brands of hair colour, I diligently slathered a toxic neon red tinted conditioner on my head twice a week (which would dribble down my neck when I got sweaty, and which I left on pillowcases at massage and physiotherapy clinics across the city), but nothing worked.

The back especially would turn a weird orange colour within a week. The hair was too lacking in melanin to actually hold the colour. The hair around my face was fine, for some reason, and immediately after an application of colour I would have hair that was two distinctly different shades of red.

I went back to black cherry and even full-on purple shades, figuring that the darker colours might take better. (That came with a bottle of freakishly bright purple tinted conditioner that left purple streaks on pillowcases.) Fuck you, I said to my head one morning, Imma fix your little red wagon, and good. And so I dyed my hair black.

Good, nice; a sleek, classic, little black bob. Because while I’ve explained my lifetime of hair colour, I’ve clearly neglected to mention that my hair is straight. Poker straight. After a childhood of painful rollers, stinking perms, and singeing curling irons to create some semblance waves and ringlets, as an adult, I figured that the best thing to do was also the easiest, and just let it be straight. With a few exceptions, such as a darling pixie cut that required way more product and effort than short hair really deserves, I’ve worn a classic 1920s-style bob for almost three decades.

After I dyed it black and was happy with it being black, the hair on the back of my head faded out to an orangey-brown colour that was everything that was sad about the 1970s.

“You know,” I said one afternoon to my husband Greg, “the front is holding the colour and I really like the black against my face. I should just shave it into a Chelsea cut. You know, to let the grey grow out.”

Without batting an eye, Greg said, “I’ll get the clippers.”

Yes, readers, I trust my husband enough to let him shave my head. He shaves his own head, and he cuts the back part of my bobbed hair each month and does a fantastic job. So I combed and pinned the front bangs and long, straight pieces and he shaved off the rest.

Dudes, chill, it grew back.

Now, despite my various experiments with asymmetrical haircuts in the 80s, the Chelsea cut, typically worn by female skinheads, was a style that I had always wanted but never had the nerve to do. If I had come home with my head almost entirely shaved, my parents would have kicked me out. Besides which, I was never really into the hardcore scene and wearing that style would have marked me as part of a specific tribe that I wasn’t actually involved in.

But at 49, well after the style no longer had political implications? It would certainly be more fun that growing out my haircolour via that awful, ever-widening skunk stripe down the centre of my head that most people go through.

So Greg shaved it off and we gasped at how much hair was piled on the floor, then we rubbed my head repeatedly to feel the fuzz.

Reasons not to shave your head into a skinhead haircut:

1. No hat ever creates the same amount of warmth on your head as hair

2. There’s a lot of stuff about Nazis in the news and you wander around terrified that someone will attack you for being one (this didn’t happen, in fact, nobody seemed to get the connection, because it was in fact, Toronto in 2017, not Leeds in 1982)

3. For the first few weeks the hair is short enough that it pokes through the weave of the fabric of a pillowcase and you literally get stuck on your pillow and cannot turn your head

3. The grow-out is… interesting

So the goal really was to grow my hair back out into a full bob, keeping the black in the front, sort of a negative version of the lucky folks with black hair who get those lovely and distinguished white flashes along their hairlines. A reverse Lily Munster, if you will. With enough hairspray, the long black bits at the front can be back-combed to look like I have a giant spider on my head. Or the stripes of a badger. Super awesome bonus points.

As the shaved hair got longer — and it really was a spectacular shade of silver now, not completely white, but probably about 75% grey — it went through various phases. First the Bay City Rollers/artichoke heart phase where it just kind of stuck up all over. Then the Paul Weller phase, which happened in part because I had trimmed my bangs too short. After that there was a shaggy Clem Burke phase. These were interspersed with some awkward lengths that made me happy it was winter and I could hide under a hat.

Shortly after the original cut, someone sent me a message on Twitter to tell me that my dream job had opened up. After not having a Toronto restaurant critic for eighteen months, the Globe and Mail were adding this column back to their paper and were interviewing qualified applicants. Having spent the last ten years writing about food, and knowing that an opportunity to interview for what is, really, the top position in the food writing field in the country was rare, I sent in my resume and some samples and got an email to come in for an interview.

Because I was a conscientious food writer, there are few pictures of me on the Internet. I made a point of not having my photo taken if I could help it. The one or two that exist show me with bright red hair. So when the Globe editor came to reception that day to collect me, she did a double-take. I knew right there that I wouldn’t be getting the gig, but soldiered on through the interview anyway. We discussed how they didn’t really want an incognito critic anymore, that they really wanted a personality along the lines of UK restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who could do appearances if necessary, and that there wouldn’t be disguises or pseudonyms. But I knew that a conservative paper wouldn’t want a stripy-haired skinhead-looking broad representing their publication. Even if the hair would eventually grow back.

The paper eventually hired someone from outside Toronto who was not known to local chefs, and who had a fairly common appearance and name (there were more than 30 people on LinkedIn in Toronto with the same name when I Googled the guy), so it seems they changed their minds about wanting a “personality” for that column. But being able to say I walked into an interview at the country’s most conservative newspaper with a full-on skinhead haircut is a bit of compensation for not getting the gig, especially considering how very, very qualified I was for it.

Since the haircut and the grow out, I have a lot of people stopping me to comment on my hair. Cool folks, plain folks, and lots of women who are probably also going grey and are wondering if they could get away with something similar in their own hair. (The black stripes on grey might be a bit daring for some. The only other person I’ve seem with something close to my style is UK personality Phillippa Perry.)

While there is a cliched idea that older women become invisible as we age, the hair seems to be an opening for strangers to approach me and ask about it. A lot of them even want to touch it, which is weird, and many people seem to think I’ve dyed it grey. (This is even more attention than I got when my hair was red and people would chase me down the street asking about brand names.)

That’s right. I choose to let my grey grow out at exactly the same time that colouring your hair grey became trendy with the young people. “Wait, that’s real?” is a refrain I hear a lot these days, along with, “Oh my God, you don’t LOOK 50!” Uh huh.

It’s disconcerting to realize that people — especially young people — are envious of my grey hair, given how we tend to treat older women in our society. I suspect that if I hadn’t kept the black Chelsea bangs and side bits, I’d not get the same amount of attention, as it wouldn’t be nearly as striking. But I’m a firm believer in working with what you’ve got and if my black and grey hair is something to be admired, by young and old alike, especially if it encourages anyone to be unique and creative with their appearance, then it’s a truly positive thing.

Recently someone referred to my ‘do as “Badass” and I don’t think there’s a higher compliment to be had.

Book Review — The Great Believers

The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai

I approached this one with trepidation. Set partially in 1985 – 1990 in Chicago’s gay scene, it deals with the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the devastation it caused within that community. My first job after high school was delivering meals in a hospital and although the gay scene in Halifax was tiny there were still a handful of AIDS patients at that time, placed on the cancer ward because the hospital didn’t know what else to do with them. Amongst a flood of ignorance and misinformation, many of my co-workers refused to deliver trays to these patients, so I found myself regularly getting called in for an evening shift and working only one ward (about 25 beds out of 900). I got to know a lot of these men in their last days, and with many of my close friends also being gay men, it was terrifying to watch.

The Great Believers follows Yale in the 1980s as he watches his friends die one by one, supported by his friend Nico’s younger sister, Fiona. The book then jumps to 2015 as Fiona arrives in Paris in search of her estranged daughter. The work jumps back and forth between time frames and while it first seems as if the book is two separate, disjointed story lines, things come together and we discover that Fiona, jokingly referred to as “Saint Fiona of Chicago” for her support of her brother and many of his friends as they died carries her own trauma and PTSD which has affected her life and that of those around her.

Makkai creates a parallel between the AIDS epidemic and the Great War/Spanish Flu epidemic with the storyline of Nora, Fiona’s great aunt, who was a model in Paris before and after the first world war, and who has valuable artwork that Yale tries to secure for the gallery where her works. Nora lost many of her friends and colleagues, either at the front or from the flu, or other related ways (such as suicide) after the fact.

Although the story appears to be about Yale, Fiona is actually the central character, both in her involvement with her boys in the 80s and in 2015 as she goes searching for her daughter and discovers that she’s never really let go of the trauma of the 1980s; she still lives and works in Chicago at a charity shop that donates proceeds to AIDS charities even though most of the people she loved are gone.

But the world has changed in 30 years. Some of the men she knew came through the epidemic unscathed (no glove, no love, people!), some who were believed to be dead show up healthy and robust thanks to the advances in drug therapy in the late 1990s/early 2000s. And Fiona realizes that she’s the only one who hasn’t let go and moved on. And that her dedication to the memory of her boys has destroyed other, current — and incredibly important — relationships.

The Great Believers has been picked up for development by Amy Poehler, so we can probably expect to see the book made into a series within the next couple of years. Still worth reading in the interim though, especially if you lived through those awful years and are still carrying those memories around with you.

June 2019 Reading List

There Are No Grown-Ups: A Mid-Life Coming of Age Story
Pamela Druckerman
The author of a best-selling book on French parenting, Druckerman’s take on turning 40 is less self-help or advice and more memoir. Which, despite having read most of the book, didn’t do much for me. As an old freak, I keep looking for takes on turning 40/50 with a unique perspective and while Druckerman (an American living in Paris) does have interesting theories and experiences on this issue in terms of France vs America, especially when it comes to things like style, sexual affairs, and body-positivity, ultimately it felt a bit light.

The Paragon Hotel
Lyndsay Faye
A gangster’s moll in 1921 Harlem, sporting twin gunshot wounds and dragging a bag containing $50,000 in counterfeit cash, boards a train heading west. And ends up at the only black hotel in Portland, Oregon, one of the whitest towns in America. There she meets a whole cast of characters and finds herself enmeshed in the kidnapping of a young black boy, which becomes a race to find him before the cross-burning KKK do. Dealing with racism, gay and transgender issues, class-ism, gangs, sex work and more, this is a sharp snapshot of a particular time period. Faye’s got the snappy wit bang on, and the dialogue, while often cryptic with references of the day, is just enthralling. Favourite work of fiction so far this year.

I.M.
Isaac Mizrahi
The most important part of the memoir/auto-biography genre is what the books don’t tell. Mizrahi spends a lot of time on his childhood; growing up in a Syrian-Jewish family and knowing he was gay at a young age causes just about as much anxiety as would be expected. Many anecdotes as well about his early fashion career, but a lot of stuff gets glossed over as the book heads into his career as an entertainer. Seriously — we all want to know about the Scarlett Johansson boob squeeze! Mizrahi is at his best as a writer when he’s describing clothes, whether his own designs or the great outfits of his mother’s that have inspired him.

The Durrells of Corfu
Michael Haag
If you fell in love with the TV series based on Gerald Durrell’s fictional Corfu trilogy, this is the real story of the Durrell family, from their time in India (where they were all born) to their time in Greece and after the war. All the stuff that was left out and that will help the trilogy and the TV series make more sense (Louisa lost a child — born between Larry and Leslie — to diphtheria, and that’s why Leslie was so coddled; she also made a friend of the gin bottle and had a nervous breakdown while in England, prompting the family’s move to Corfu). Find out who was real (Theo, Spiro, Lugaretzia), and who was left out (Larry’s wife Nancy, who was with the family in Greece the whole time, was not included in the books or the series). This filled in a lot of holes for me, and knowing more about the family’s life in colonial India (they had piles of servants, the kids had an ayah) explains much about their often uncomfortable interactions with the people of Corfu.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
Matthew Walker
I’ve been a staunch advocate of getting enough sleep — every night — for a long time and Walker’s research links lack of sleep with lots of bad stuff, most notably dementia. He also explores the differences in the types of sleep and why we need both. If sleep is the last thing on your to-do list, you’ll be prioritizing things differently after reading this.

The Cutting Season
Attica Locke
Set in 2009 on an Antebellum-era “living museum” sugar plantation, The Cutting Season maybe tries too hard to be too many things. There’s history and mystery and they weave together, but also race relations, gentrification, a story about family and family history and the interlacing of families. Which is a lot to pull together. Descriptions are beautiful and characters are mostly well-developed but I found there to be too many flashbacks and most readers will have figured out the identity both of “who done it” and “who is it” early in the plot.

Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad and Criminal in 19th Century New York
Stacy Horn
Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island, was once the place where the undesirables of New York City were sent to be treated, or not. The island housed an asylum (famously documented by journalist Nellie Bly), a almshouse (where aged or disabled people went when they were completely unable to work), a prison, a hospital, and a workhouse (different from the British workhouse model, this was more like a jail where people served short-term sentences). None of these institutions were run properly, and Horn details the various travesties that took place over the course of the 1800s. Terrifyingly, some of the same issues with poor patient treatment continued into the 20th and even 21st centuries.

Daisy Jones and the Six
Taylor Jenkins Reid
Another contender for favourite fiction of the year. Daisy Jones and the Six were the biggest band in the world until they all walked away from fame, mid-tour. Told as an “oral history” of inter-spliced interviews with band members, co-workers, and family, Reid has hit upon something brilliant here. If, like me, you often get frustrated with the “It was a dark and stormy night…” wankery of authors who over-dress their setting, the minimal descriptions in each interview pushes plot, action, and dialogue to the forefront. Reid catches all the fun quirks of oral history, including how characters’ stories don’t line up or even directly contradict each other. Five stars, would read again.

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Ruth Reichl
Detailing Reichl’s time as the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and how she took it from a fusty old tome for “gastronomes” to a hip and cool publication that helped shaped the current international food scene. The world was devastated to learn that the Conde Nast was pulling the plug on the successful magazine and Reichl explains how none of the staff really saw it coming. Offers great insight into the world of mainstream media, the process for putting together a monthly magazine, and Reichl’s own life at the time. Told in her engaging and informative style, this will just make you want to flip through old copies wishing it was still around.

May Media Musing

Some of the stuff I watched in May…

Film

Her Smell
We almost bailed on this early in the film — the drugged-up, erratic Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) wandering around the green room of a concert venue screaming at people was a real turn-off. However we stuck with it and were glad we did. Moss delivered a nuanced and engaging performance as a messed-up rock star whose addiction and mental health problems destroyed herself and those around her. Brutally annoying in parts, but there is some peace and optimism in the ending.

Stiv
Speaking of the rock star life, this documentary about the life of Stiv Bators of The Dead Boys shows just how intense that life can be. With interviews from friends and former bandmates (although, notably, not any of the members of the current line-up of The Dead Boys, including Cheetah Chrome), the film details Bators’ life from the early days until his death in 1990. The irony of someone who did all the drugs and booze and who liked to car surf for kicks getting hit by a taxi and walking away only to die of internal bleeding hours later is not lost. And the story about his girlfriend snorting his ashes is true (many of the funeral attendees did as well).

The Lion’s Share
It’s not “wimawe” it’s “mbube”, and a real South African man named Solomon Linda wrote the line decades before The Tokens recorded The Lion Sleeps Tonight, or it was used by Disney. This story of Linda’s children trying to win back royalty rights and be compensated for the work their father created is fraught with that special flavour of racism found only in South Africa (the lawyer hired to defend the adult daughters talks about them as if they’re mentally-challenged children). Ultimately they win… something, but after all the lawyers get their share, Linda’s daughters aren’t left with much.

Television

Back to Life
Daisy Haggard (best known for her role in Uncle) plays Meri, fresh out of an 18-year stint in prison, returning to her hometown to try and restart the life she lost as a teenager. The viewer doesn’t find out why Meri went to jail until the end of the series, and the plot is full of twists and turns. Great performance by Adeel Akhtar as Miri’s neighbour.

Ghosts
The original Horrible Histories cast returns as a collection of ghosts haunting a derelict country pile. Based partially on the story of West Horsley Place (where the show is filmed), Alison (Charlotte Ritchie, Save the Midwife) and her husband inherit an estate. Alison falls out a window, lives through a coma, and when she returns she can hear and see the ghosts. Much hilarity ensues. There’s a caveman, a headless Tudor courtier (presumably based on Sir Walter Raleigh, whose family owned West Horsley Place and whose head was supposedly kept in a bag found on the premises — the bag, not the head), and a whole host of other characters. Oh, and a pile of plague victims in the basement. This might be my favourite show of 2019 so far.

A House Through Time
Historian David Olusoga traces the history of a single house in Newcastle, using census reports and other records to find out more about the building’s occupants. In Series 2, Olusoga discovers the Newcastle house was the home of IRA members and the famous naturalist Joshua Alder. This is a really engaging series (third season is in the works) and I love Olusoga’s laid-back but engaged presenting style.

It’s Bruno
This is one of those great little series of 15-minute episodes (like Special and Bonding) that Netflix has picked up recently. You couldn’t have made TV like this even 10 years ago but the need for piles of content means that fun, quirky little shows this this one about a guy and his dog in Brooklyn, not only get picked up but become hugely popular. Solvan “Slick” Naim plays Malcolm, a man devoted to his dog. Everybody loves Bruno. Well, except his rival Angie and her owner, and the guy who runs the supermarket and makes Bruno stay outside. Every episode is drama-packed and full of charm.

What We Do in the Shadows
I wasn’t loving this series as much as the movie it is based on, but it picked up significantly about halfway through the season. I’m even warming to Matt Berry (Lazlo), who I was never a real fan of previously. Every episode is better than the last, with notable highlights including werewolves, the pub crawl episode and the massive, amazing cameo-filled vampire council episode, made up of actors who have previously played vampires including Tilda Swinton and Paul Reubens. The real question is can they convince Catherine Deneuve to take part in another council episode next season?

Deadwood The Movie
Aw, y’all. This is still my favourite TV series of all time, and like so many others I’ve been waiting for some closure for more than a decade. It was good. Lots of references to the series (although I felt the flashback clips were superfluous), including those fucking peaches, and lots of circular references that echoed events from the series that did, ultimately, give us some closure. (Most of) the people you want to see have a happy ending get one, and the bad guys get their comeuppance. Which is pretty much what you want from a Shakespearean western, right? (Did y’all catch the uncredited cameo by Deadwood alum Garret Dillahunt? He’s there!)

May Reading List

This month’s inadvertent theme is “all the British ladies”, as my Top 3 picks (pictured above) are all about British women. There’s the Tudor-era feminist who had to hide her work behind a man’s name, the fictional suffragettes who find themselves at loose ends once they achieve voting parity for women, and the five women whose lives were lost to Victorian-era morals that gave them few options to support themselves and their children. They’re all owed big respect for their work and their sacrifices.

How to Be Alone
Lane Moore
I nabbed this originally thinking it was a book on psychology and self-acceptance, but it turns out Moore is a writer, comedian, and musician who escaped a troubled home riddled with FLEAs (frightening lasting effects of abuse), and is just trying to find healthy relationships, both in terms of friendship and romance, that don’t trigger issues from her past. The writing is slightly too meandering train-of-though for me, but I empathize with Moore’s life situation, although it does feel disingenuous for a writer to claim they have nobody to spend Christmas with and then include hundreds of people in the acknowledgements.

Between Meals: An Appetite For Paris
A. J. Leibling
Leibling, one of the most under-appreciated food writers of the 20th century, spent time in Paris in 1927, 1939, 1944 and again in the 1950s. While his gluttonous (let’s be honest) appetite affected his health, he had such a distinct understanding for food, especially French food, that he must be considered an expert on the subject. This book does spend a lot of time bemoaning lost Parisian restaurants and condemning people, both chefs and diners, who don’t understand French cuisine, but in the 1950s Leibling predicted the end of the world’s love affair with French food before food writers such as Child, Fisher and Beard had any clue it was happening.

Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times
Irshad Manji
I’ve been a fan of Manji since her time in Toronto hosting Queer TV, and this book, while stylistically sometimes hard to get into, delves into how all sides of the political spectrum need to spend more time listening to each other and less time trying to prove they’re right. The book is written as a conversation between Manji and her dog, Lily, and this can sometimes come off as patronizing. Also, in some chapters, the dog talks back (yes, really) and this is weirdly disconcerting, as if two drafts of the manuscript have been pieced together. Still worth reading (and re-reading) though, because Manji offers such a balanced perspective. She’s also got no patience with social justice warriors or folks who proclaim themselves “woke”, which makes this book a winner in my eyes.

Habits of a Happy Brain
Loretta Graziano Breuning
I’m more than a little interested in neuroplasticity and Breuning explores how the brain creates and uses chemicals such as dopamine, seratonin, oxytocin and endorphin, as well as the not so happy chemical of cortisol. The explanations are a little basic, however, and the habits to create bursts of the good chemicals (and be happy) are a bit trite. We’re not happy all the time and are not meant to be, and ours brains create these chemicals anyway, without us do anything special to make more of them.

Social Creature
Tara Isabella Burton
The trope here is one we all know; two friends move in together, one takes over the other’s life. It’s Single White Female, or The Other Typist(see review above). Only in this case, the protagonist is the ultimate anti-hero, and by the end of the book, the reader is unsure who is the most messed up, Lavinia, the rich and manic narcissist, or Louise the roommate who kills her and uses social media to pretend her friend is alive and well in order to live in her house and have access to her bank account and credit cards. This is written in a weird, choppy style that jumps in tone and the author drops so many red herrings that it starts to stink after a while. “And that’s when Louise really fucked up…” Except there’s never any reckoning with the action. A snarky look at New York’s literary/party scene with characters that are maybe too close to caricatures. A fun read, all the same, but a bit of an eye roller.

Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Amelia Bassano Lanier — The Woman Behind Shakespeare’s Plays
John Hudson
There’s long been speculation that Willy Shakes never wrote a word of any of the plays or poems that bear his name and factual evidence (at the time of his death, he owned no books, no paper, even unused, and no copies of his past works) seems to support this. But who did? John Hudson offers a long, somewhat detailed theory that it was a woman of Jewish Italian descent named Amelia Bassano. Bassano ticks all the boxes in terms of the life experience and knowledge the playwright would have to have had: knew Italian, Hebrew and Latin, knew music and instrument making, knew court life, including many events and in-jokes, knew Denmark and Venetian culture and geography, knew about the military, the law, housewifery, falconry (yes, really), and was a feminist. Hudson even compares stylistic aspects of Bassano’s writing under her own name with that of Shakespeare and believes that the same person wrote the works of both. Oh, and that many of the works are satirical commentary on Christianity. If nothing else, the fact that the person spelled his name differently on all legal documents and that “Shakespeare” would have been a Tudor-era pun for masturbation should give cause for doubt.

Old Baggage
Lissa Evans
This is the prequel to Crooked Heart, although it was written after. By 1928, the original suffragettes were hitting middle age or older and were struggling to find their place in the world as Britain prepared to extend the vote to all women, not just those who owned land or were married. Mattie and Flea (Florrie) live in a world where their former bravery and glory is unappreciated. Taking local girls under their wing in a club centred on Hampstead Heath, the women have a distinct perspective on the changing social climate. This book has been optioned for a TV series by the company run by actors Joanna Scanlon and Vicki Peppardine and I am so excited for this series that I cannot contain my glee. Written more as a series of vignettes than having one major plot arc, I think this will translate to the screen incredibly well.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Hallie Rubenhold
Polly, Annie, Eliza, Kate, Mary Jane. Their names have often been forgotten in the 130 years since Jack the Ripper took their lives, especially since the murderer was never caught (recent investigations using modern forensic evidence point to Aaron Kosminski, a Polish barber who lived in Whitechapel and suffered from severe mental health issues, including a violent attitude towards women). Rubenhold stays well away from Ripper speculation, and does not include details of the murders. Instead she uses census data along with inquest documentation to develop pictures of all five women’s lives prior to their deaths, including births, deaths, marriages, siblings, schooling, stints at workhouses, hospitals and sanitariums. She discovers that all women were reasonably well-educated (all could read and write), but that Victorian-era constraints and attitudes towards women put all five victims in situations of poverty where they turned to alcoholism to get through life. The background on Mary Jane Kelly is somewhat spotty, as her real name was unknown (she was supposedly on the run from white slave traders) and so her chapter is based mostly on inquest statements and newspaper interviews with people who knew her. Surprisingly, Rubenhold’s research shows that only two of the women worked as prostitutes, and that all except Kelly were known to “sleep rough”, putting them on the streets, asleep, when they were murdered. An important book that reminds us that our fascination with serial killers often erases the victims, and that women were (and often still are) treated unfairly in the domestic sphere.

Check out all the books I’ve read in 2019 here.

Musings, May 6, 2019 — Hail Satan!, Special, Hollywood, How to Be Alone

I’m going to try this whole Musings idea again. Just because I want to keep track of the media I’m consuming in a more concrete way, but also to share my thoughts on things that interest me.

At the Movies

Hail Satan!
This documentary by filmmaker Penny Lane follows members of the Satanic Temple (not to be confused with the original Church of Satan created by Anton LaVey) in their fight for religious freedom as well as the separation of church and state. They’ve taken on various campaigns but the most well-known is the one to have statues of the ten commandments removed from state capitols, or in the name of religious freedom, to have a statue of Baphomet erected next to the ten commandments. (Turns out all those stone ten commandment statues were erected as a promotional stunt for the Charlton Heston film back in 1956.) Tensions arise when this group that started out as three individuals grows to tens of thousands of members, and the necessary organizational structure cannot accommodate rogue members calling for the assassination of the president. Sadly, this is one of those preaching to the choir movies as the people who really need to see it won’t make the effort to do so.

TV Party Tonight

Special
We dug this Netflix series by comedian Ryan O’Connell. Each of the eight episodes clocks in around 15 minutes so it never overstays its welcome, but instead delivers its message in a fun and succinct manner. Outstanding performance by Jessica Hecht as Ryan’s mother, who has the hardest time letting her disabled son finally go off on his own into the world. Except when he calls her to come do all the stuff for him. Also, Olivia, Ryan’s boss (played by Marla Mindelle), comes across as a cold bitch, but is way wiser that she lets on.

Hollywood
As in Hooray for. We recently finished working our way through a 13-part series about the silent film industry, from the stars and directors to the stunt people and camera/effects crews. The series aired originally in 1980, and includes interviews with Louise Brooks and Colleen Moore, who, in her 80s looked almost exactly as she did in her 20s, except with glasses. I’m probably the last silent film fan to have discovered this series but it was so informative regarding the process of movie-making during that time.

Sheryl’s Bookshelf

How to Be Alone
Lane Moore
I nabbed this originally thinking it was a book on psychology and self-acceptance, but it turns out Moore is a writer, comedian, and musician who escaped a troubled home riddled with FLEAs (frightening lasting effects of abuse), and is just trying to find healthy relationships, both in terms of friendship and romance, that don’t trigger issues from her past. The writing is slightly too meandering train-of-though for me, but I empathize with Moore’s life situation, although it does feel disingenuous for a writer to claim they have nobody to spend Christmas with and then include hundreds of people in the acknowledgements.

April Reading List

Tete-a-Tete
Hazel Rowley
The biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir based on her journals and letters. Honestly, this is a DNF for me, as I just couldn’t get past what a dick Sartre was, both to Beauvoir and the many women he had relationships with. Plus Beauvoir grooming her young high school-aged students to become his lovers was also way creepy.

The American Agent
Jacqueline Winspear
Another fantastic novel in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, this one taking place during the Blitz in the fall of 1940. Winspear has maintained Dobbs through 15 novels now and they remain sharp, intriguing, and well-written. Many red herrings and twisty paths, as usual, the murderer turns out to be a complete surprise.

Life Admin
Elizabeth F. Emens
One of those books that talks about theoretical issues rather than offering much in the way of concrete advice, if nothing else it will give the reader pause to consider how much of our life is unavoidable admin work (grocery lists, permission slips, taxes). Also, an understanding about how different people approach admin tasks, and how some things that require our attention feel like a waste of time.

Rage Becomes Her
Soraya Chemaly
An important read, but it can come off cluttered at times and doesn’t really offer much new insight into all of the things women have to be angry about. Unequal pay, harassment, mansplaining… it’s all here, and Chemaly offers concise details, but there’s little in the way of concrete advice. At best, you read this to get worked up at the injustice against women and then come up with your own ideas to fight it.

How to Be Famous
Caitlin Moran
The second book of a trilogy (How to Build a Girl #2) loosely based on Moran’s early adult life as a music writer. This starts out clunky and I almost discarded it, but it picks up and becomes a great story and a love letter to young women. Seriously, worth reading just for protagonist Dolly’s letter to her rock star boyfriend about the power and energy of young female music fans, and how the music industry — so dependent on the custom of teenage girls — treats them with misogynistic disdain. Rating: a hearty Fuck Yeah!

Highland Fling & Christmas Pudding
Nancy Mitford
The first two books from The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford. Mitford was a London socialite in the early 20th century, one of a family of sisters, a few of whom were closely linked with the Nazi party during WW2. While Mitford’s writing is said to improve with her later works, the first two novels were not well-received at the time of publication and mostly deal with the gender gap within the aristocracy between the old guard and the Bright Young People. Lots of country estates, hunting, characters with names like Squibby, and discussions about how much inheritance per year would justify marrying someone you didn’t love. Characters were mostly based on Mitford’s friends so didn’t really translate well to the rest of the population. I may come back to the later novels at some point but these two just made me despise silly rich people.

The New Me
Halle Butler
This is one of those new-fangled books about Millennial ennui, and Butler’s character Millie is scathing, cynical, and sarcastic, covering up some fairly severe depression and self-loathing. It’s ultimately a flip-off to Western society’s promise of the reinvention of the self through consumerism (that lipstick, rug, cereal, car, yoga class, or facial treatment will make your life so much better!). The narrative jumps from Millie’s point of view to that of other characters in some chapters, and this would work better if more of it came back to Millie in some way. It’s meant to show the universality of our depressing work/life treadmill and how we try to improve it, mostly by purchasing stuff, but it could have been tighter and more succinct if the characters had more interaction.

Maeve in America: Essays By a Girl From Somewhere Else
Maeve Higgins
Irish comedian Maeve Higgins has spent the last few years in the United States, and this collection of witty and often funny essays detail her accounts of swimming with dolphins, renting a ballgown for an awards ceremony, body acceptance and family. An enjoyable read that made me hope she tours Canada as I’d love to see her perform live.

You Have the Right to Remain Fat
Virgie Tovar
Tovar’s claim to fame might not be fat activism, but rather that she incorrectly accused another fat activist of plagiarizing part of this book in the TV series Shrill. (This claim was debunked by the fact that Tovar’s book was released after the scene in question — fat girl pool party — was filmed.) This was successful in getting Tovar plenty of free publicity, but not all of it positive. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t go anywhere new in the realm of fat activism and is mostly more preaching to the choir. Tovar makes good points (it’s not fat people who have to change, but the mainstream attitude towards them), but amidst the noise about stolen ideas, those issues will not be heard by the people who need to make the actual changes.

On Being 40(ish)
Lindsey Mead
While a few of these essays do actually touch on issues all women face in mid-life, far too many of them were along the lines of “here’s something that happened to me when I was 40”, as opposed to “because I was 40”. So many of the essays in this small collection didn’t feel especially relevant. “Soul Mates: A Timeline in Clothing” by Catherine Newman, detailing a lifelong friendship that ultimately ends when one of the friends dies of ovarian cancer might have been the best piece in the book. I was hoping for a lot more from this collection.

March Reading List

The German Girl
Armando Lucas Correa
Fascinating topic, but the execution is clunky. Based on the true story of the MS St. Louis, the ocean liner full of Jews fleeing Germany in 1939 that arrived in Cuba only to be turned back, with a mere 28 passengers (out of more than 900) permitted to disembark. Correa works to create many correlations between modern-day Anna and her great-aunt Hannah in 1939, but writing both parts in the first person voice offers little differentiation between the two character’s voices. Timelines feel off but work out as the plot progresses however there’s no clear answer to the main plot point of the story, which is why did Hannah’s mother, and Hannah herself after her mother’s death, remain in a country they hated, especially when they had the money to go to America after the end of WW2 and at the onset of the Cuban revolution? With better editing (again, this work is clunky, often slow, and long-winded) this could have been a great YA novel. Geared to adults, it’s less engaging, although, again the topic itself is both fascinating and horrible, so kudos to Correa for giving it light after so many decades.

Sweet Expectations
Mary Ellen Taylor
A food-themed romance/chick-lit/mystery/ghost story that had a reasonable plot (even with the ghosts), but which was short on continuity and spell-checking. Seriously, this was published by Penguin, but was littered with misspellings that any version of spellcheck should have caught. Characters’ ages change from one chapter to the next. Most of it felt like an awkward first draft. I was ready to forgive the clumsiness until I discovered that this was the second in a series, and the synopsis for the first book sounds almost the same as the second, complete with a found object and a ghost who needs the heroine to unravel their mystery.

Continue reading “March Reading List”

Middle of the Night Voice, or Why You Should Never Listen to Your Inner Voice

First, let’s be clear — your inner voice is an asshole.

Regardless of the time of day it may come to you, that nagging little voice that tells you that you’re too much or not enough; too fat, too ugly, too loud, too bossy, not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough… that voice is intended to fuck with your head. It is never ever there to help you, even though it will pretend to be.

Often the inner voice will come to you sounding like the actual voice of someone who has or does criticize you. Those voices are particularly difficult to free yourself from because they’re based on a relationship, usually toxic, and which you often feel is unfair or imbalanced or in which you’re not taken seriously. The inner voice’s job is to make you feel like crap about yourself, to doubt yourself, to question yourself to the point of failure.

Again, never forget, your inner voice is an asshole.

Continue reading “Middle of the Night Voice, or Why You Should Never Listen to Your Inner Voice”

Find Your Style — How to Look Fabulous While Avoiding the Fast Fashion Trap

I am bad for the economy. Despite really enjoying the artistry involved in fashion, I don’t buy a lot of clothing. And when I do, that garment has to meet a long list of qualifications before I hand over payment.

Much concern is generated with some regularity about how much clothing the average Westerner buys, how little we wear that clothing once we get it home, and how difficult it is to dispose of those garments once the closet gets too full and we want to make room for more new clothes.

Second-hand shops receive so many donations that garments often only get a week or so on the racks before they’re cycled out, baled up, and sent to countries in Africa where they’re sold for pennies and where they’re often not even wanted or needed. Fast fashion has made new clothing so cheap that people in countries that previously needed clothing donations now buy new items at rates that are inching up on the Western pace of consumption.

Services that allow people to borrow or rent clothing, wear the items a few times and then return them in order to try different pieces are becoming more popular, and definitely ensure that at least some items are worn a reasonable amount, but ultimately, these fast fashion items also end up in a landfill, as they will eventually fall apart or quickly go out of style.

Buying nothing, or at least, significantly less, is better for the environment, but not so much for the economy, which relies heavily on consumer spending. If we all stopped shopping it would result in lost jobs, from retail to transport to manufacturing. And let’s face it, we all need some clothes.

Here’s how I’ve streamlined my own wardrobe to make it more stylish, more environmentally-friendly, and more useful to me so that I actually wear the few items that I buy.

Style vs Fashion: Stop Following Trends

The first hurdle is the most difficult — stop following trends, unless they really work for you. While the fashion industry is based on the premise of convincing consumers that the next big trend is the one that will make our lives better, deep down, we all know this is never really true. As trendy items go out of style, sometimes in as little as a few weeks, followers of fashion need to move on to the next hot thing to stay satisfied.

Style, however, is a different beast. True style, the ability to know what cuts, colors, fabrics and yes, trends, work for you, and then avoiding mainstream fads to put together a wardrobe that is unique makes for a much more interesting persona. Moving away from finding comfort in homogeneity, that is, feeling confident because you’re NOT dressed just like everyone else, and discovering (and expressing) who you are by what you wear is a delightful process that signals a growing maturity and sense of self.

Once you reach the point where you’d be horrified to leave the house looking like anybody else, then you’re ready to create your own unique style, based on logic, comfort and self-expression.

Analyze Your Life, Determine Your Style

The hardest part of the process is determining your personal style, for this is influenced by so many things that are unique to you including culture, religion, body shape, musical preferences, and even, or especially, your local weather.

Keeping a style diary where you track every outfit you wear, for a month or more, will help determine the foundation of your clothing needs. Log each outfit, how physically comfortable it is, and how psychologically comfortable it is (IE. are you overdressed? Dressed inappropriately?).This will allow you to pinpoint the clothes you actually need versus the clothes you buy because of a whim, or the idea of the person you could be if only you had that perfect item in your wardrobe. There’s no point in buying ball gowns if you never go to balls, or vintage silk pajamas if you prefer to wear t-shirts to bed.

The style diary should show you where to concentrate your wardrobe updates. For instance, if you work from home and are happy in yoga pants and t-shirts, then you probably don’t need a large collection of office-appropriate suits and blouses. Note that your style will morph as you get older and experience life changes. Job shifts may require wardrobe updates. Having kids might mean that you can significantly pare down your collection of club wear. Buying a house may require that you have clothes appropriate for gardening, painting, or renovating, and no longer need quite so many dresses for a cute weekend brunch.

At the same time, start collecting images of clothing that you like (Pinterest is great for this) and sort into boards or folders that relate to your lifestyle activities. This will help you to pinpoint what styles you like, as well as what style will genuinely work for you, in order to know what to buy in the future when adding to your wardrobe.

Marie Kondon’t

Once you have an idea of the clothes you need, it’s time to get rid of the clothes that you don’t need. Despite the popularity of Marie Kondo’s “Spark Joy” philosophy, that doesn’t really work here. The key is to be ruthless. Get rid of anything that is permanently stained, torn and not repairable, or that doesn’t fit (in a favorable way) right now. Don’t keep a pile of “fat” clothes or “thin” clothes to accommodate future weight gain or loss unless you are literally pregnant.

Of the clothes that go back into you closet, each item must meet all of the following qualifications:

— fits you, right now

— does not need mending or altering (you can make a pile of things to be fixed, but do not return them to the closet until the items have been updated)

— works in at least one category of your style diary (IE. work clothes, around the house clothes, out for dinner)

— can be paired with at LEAST two other items in your wardrobe, ideally to make distinct outfits, unless this is gear specific for sports or similar activities

The clothes left in your closet, combined with your various Pinterest boards, should give you an idea of what you are drawn to in terms of style, color, and fit. In many cases we need clothing that we don’t necessarily love but which may be required for certain jobs or tasks. Look at each piece again and determine whether it’s a need or a love, and if the main part of your wardrobe is based on need (for instance, you are required to wear a conservative suit to work), think about ways you can love it more, perhaps with accessories or different colors or cuts.

The Capsule Wardrobe

Of the clothes that you’ve kept, you should have the foundation for a capsule wardrobe. This should be made up of items that will work together, ideally in a maximum of three colors, generally at least one neutral and one color that compliments your hair and complexion. Whether this is mostly pants or skirts, sweaters, jackets, shirts, or dresses will depend on your own preferences and needs.

From this point onward, buy nothing that doesn’t work with your existing capsule wardrobe. Everything you purchase must work with at least two existing items in your current wardrobe to make a complete outfit. For instance, when buying pants, can you pair them with two or more tops from your existing collection?

If you live somewhere with extreme annual weather changes, where summers are steaming hot and winters are well below freezing, then you will likely need two distinct seasonal wardrobes. Consider including items that can work across more than one season to extend your options, such as a lightweight cardigan than can be a layer in winter, but worn as outerwear in the warmer months.

Uniformity Not Homogeneity

Beyond the capsule wardrobe, many people find that a daily uniform makes their life simpler and less stressful. If you work in a job that requires an actual uniform or some semblance of specific items worn regularly, you already know that starting your day without having to figure out what to wear can be pretty awesome. The key here is to buy good quality items in bulk so that you can put on a clean version of your uniform each day. This makes for easy shopping, easy laundering, and allows you to concentrate your clothing budget on capsule wardrobe items for special occasions.

Don’t think that you can’t be stylish with a daily uniform, either. A friend who is a professor of fashion history at a university wears a uniform of black pants (she owns four pairs of the same style), a black turtleneck (shorter sleeves/necklines for summer) and some variation of a black and grey plaid jacket in different weights/fabrics for varying weather. She changes scarves, hats, and other accessories each day and her colleagues consider her the epitome of style.

Buy the Best You Can Afford

For many of us, money is a constraint, and we get more emotional reward from buying many cheaper items than we might in buying one piece of fantastic quality. However, well-made garments from quality fabrics last longer, saving money in the long run when you can make a winter coat last a decade (or two!) instead of replacing your coat every couple of years to stay on trend.

For this to work, you have to accept the idea of dedicating yourself to wearing garments in classic styles that are beyond fast fashion trends.

Sew, No Go

Many people suggest that sewing is the key to the problems caused by Westerners buying too much clothing, but sewing new clothes can be just as wasteful as buying fast fashion due to the large amount of textile scrap that comes from one person buying the quantity of fabric necessary to make a single garment. While labor conditions in most sweat shops are indeed horrible, there is considerably less textile waste per garment than in home sewing. This is not to say people should not create their own clothes if they enjoy it, but let’s not kid ourselves with the idea that this is any kind of solution to the problem, especially if the home-sewn garments are on current trend and will also be discarded once they are out of fashion.

Having said that, sewing is an skilled and creative hobby, especially if you use those skills for repairs or altering garments to fit better in order to keep wearing them for a longer period of time.

Vintage Vibes

Vintage items are definitely a fun way to stay stylish while not contributing to the waste and poor worker treatment of fast fashion. Vintage items can create a truly unique and individual look, but before you buy, check out these tips:

— vintage items, particularly pre-1980s, tend to run small, and there is not usually a great selection of plus-size options.

— body shapes have changed over the generations, and garments fit much differently; we are not only heavier than our grandparents, we’re also taller, so many vintage items might be shorter in the torso, or narrow through the shoulders. Make sure it fits well before you buy.

— check the garment carefully for stains, tears, and (sorry) odor. By this I mean, examine every seam, check the fabric inside and out, and sniff those pits. Reject it if you cannot reasonably fix these problems.

— be prepared to mend, alter, and clean your vintage items. Most vintage stores cannot afford to dry clean every item they sell, so a good wash (especially if it smells musty or like mothballs) is important before you wear it.

Get Over Instagram

One of the biggest excuses I’ve seen for people buying (or making) lots of new clothing is that they constantly need new outfits for Instagram. The idea of posting a selfie while wearing something that has already been photographed is shocking for many fashionistas. If this is the only reason you’re constantly buying new clothes, you might need to re-examine your priorities. This is also where style versus fashion comes back into play. Some people might be impressed by a regular parade of new clothing, but images that demonstrate true style — how you put items together, as opposed to quantity, and constantly new — is far more impressive.

When You’ve Just Gotta Trend

If you can’t totally get past the desire to be on-trend, then set yourself a (low) seasonal budget and buy one piece that you will wear to death. I’d still go with accessories here, or something that can be worked into another part of your wardrobe. For instance, current runway shows for Fall 2019 show a lot of garments in bright orange. If you’ve gotta have something in that color, just to show that you’re in fashion, then go with a scarf, or a t-shirt where you can extend its life by wearing it as a layer under other garments, or even by wearing it around the house or to sleep in once it’s no longer on trend.

Paring down to a daily uniform or capsule wardrobe that suits your own unique style and personality can be far more creative and rewarding than buying gobs of cheap clothing that is in fashion for twenty minutes and then made redundant. Finding beautiful pieces that will last for years and that emphasis your own unique style means that you significantly cut down on the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills. Mending or dying existing pieces lets you enjoy them longer. Altering new or vintage pieces to fit you better ensures they won’t get lost at the back of the closet.

You can still contribute to the economy without contributing to the destruction of the environment, but it does take a genuine effort that includes embracing individual style over mainstream homogeneity.

(This post was originally published on Medium.)