Book Review: My Town

The Kitchener public library has a pretty substantial collection of local history books, which are generally very rare and can’t be taken out of the library. One book there that I’ve been really taken with is “My Town”, by E. Joyce Thompson Byrnes. I have found no record of it online.

It’s an incredibly cool book, about Hespeler, Ontario as a small town in the 1930s. (It is now a neighbourhood in my current municipality.) Writing from 2013, Byrnes is playful, reflective, and extremely funny. Each chapter deals with a different facet of life at the time – commerce, medical care, holidays and festivals, and so on. This being Canada, there was in fact an entire section dedicated to hockey and ice skating.

More than anything else the comparison that springs to mind for me is Anne of Green Gables, in that it’s a very saccharine view of life in the period. But it’s also really well researched and I think does a good job of cleaving to reality. Sometimes the suck leaches in from the sides of her cheerful stories – offhand mentions of her classmates dying of smallpox, how shitty winter jackets were for keeping you warm and dry, the whole great depression thing. I kind of appreciated that. It really made me appreciate how good we have it, from the big stuff (like not having 100% of cancers be fatal) to the small (man, ice skates really sucked at the time).

There’s this line of thinking that goes – once a way of life is gone, there’s no way to really understand it. As an example, some might say that people who are working on rolling back post-9/11 surveillance laws are aspiring to a pale imitation of what we once had, and the incredible, ridiculous amount of freedom that was commonplace before then would spook the shit out of this wimp-ass generation. Or in this case, something like – we’ll never get to a truly alienated world again and we don’t understand how much we lost to industrialization and atomization.

But this book had such vivid descriptions of life in the deliciously slow old days, and I feel like I genuinely understand a lot more now about what was lost. It seemed like a tightknit and wonderful community. Shit, is this why historians like firsthand accounts so much???

rub it in why dont you joyce. god.

Between stories of the hilariously dark and fucked up pranks that her mom would pull, her incredibly unique vantage point into the advancement of medical science at the time, and fond recollections of ridiculously cool things that you are no longer able to do 1, what captivated me most was the descriptions of the horses.

The fucking horses, man. I cannot believe how cool they were, I had no idea how much of a tradeoff we made when we shifted to cars.

Get this. You are a milkman, because milk delivery was a commonplace thing back then. You have a horse and a cart attached to it, full of bottles of milk. You know what you were able to do? You were able to literally just chill and read a paperback between your deliveries, because your horse! Got! Your! Fucking! Route! Memorized! It will stop at the appropriate times and know what your routine is at each stop and when to get going again. I honestly had no idea that horses were smart enough to do that. So basically we literally had intelligent self driving transportation for centuries??? 2

Ok, sometimes horses threw a shitfit. There was a really funny story about the baker trying to teach his new apprentice how to do his route, but the horse really didn’t like the apprentice’s vibes. So when the apprentice tried to climb on, it protested by lying down on its side – toppling over the attached cart and sending baked goods flying into the street.

But you know, maybe we need more horse tantrums in our lives and that would make us all better people. I for one would like a greater percentage of my first world problems to be caused by something other than human coordination failures. I would pay money for more of them to be like “sorry, Applejack the horse threw a tantrum this morning and that’s why your package wasn’t delivered” instead of “the local amazon warehouse decided to cut workers and force the remaining ones to work longer shifts again”. Can the aspiring startup founders in the area start working on this please?

Anyways, this is what I got from the first third of the book. I’ve only been able to read it in fits and snatches since I can’t take it out of the library! I might start going over on my lunch breaks. Someone else should start reading it so we can start a fan club.

Final score: 10/10

  1. Stuff like: getting freshly squeezed warm milk from the local farm a 10 minute bike ride away as a treat (she takes the time to assure you that this was nothing to worry about despite the lack of pasteurization, as “the cows had been tested for Tuberculosis”); being able to skate all the way to Guelph on the rivers that were frozen in the wintertime; have a favourite shoe design as a kid that your cobbler was always ready to make for you in the next size up[]
  2. Byrne often jokingly questions whether or not society has progressed at all since the 30s after relegating some tale or another, but man, honestly I found myself nodding in agreement more than I expected to (so like – two times, instead of zero times).[]

Modern Art Museums

I was at the San Francisco Modern Museum of Art today and I think it was slightly better than Seattle’s (which I visited in April), by which I meant the collection was only like 95% shit instead of 98% shit. The very cursed conclusion might be that its better because of increased competition amongst billionaires, since the one in Seattle was very inside this one billionaire couple’s ass for being like 50% of their endowment.

Anyways, with that experience super fresh in my mind I thought it could be nice to collect my thoughts on modern art museums and how to have fun in them, and maybe do a little photo essay of SF MoMA’s highlights and lowlights.

Things that modern art could make you feel:

  • Like you’re complicit in a billionaire’s tax evasion scheme. This is a collection that was made in like 2007 or something, which is like 60 years after people already thoroughly explored every variation of DrAwInG aTtEnTiOn tO tHe MeDiUm and made every thoughtful piece you can make about that.
If your Drawing Attention To The Medium art piece is worse than Rauschenberg’s White Painting, which was done in the freaking 50s (also available for viewing at SFMOMA!!!) DONT even talk to me, dont even look in my direction
  • The “my 5 year old can draw that” indignation, which you can feel even if you don’t have a 5 year old. Most of the time you’re right to feel indignant; like I said most modern art is garbage. HOWEVER, if you’re looking to decorate your apartment, the good news is, you can take pics of those pieces as inspiration if you like their vibe and then let your inner 5 year old go ham. I think Basquiat has the scribble game locked down too tight so I’m not too interested in scribbly things, I’d rather just get prints of his works. Here’s a cool one tho. Something about making some cool thing using math and randomness, but cheating a little so that it looks not entirely shit. Sure I can paint something like that why not
“256 Farben”, Gerhard Richter, 1974. From the slightly confusing placard description, I think what he did was randomly (supposedly using some mechanism to produce true randomness) choose the intensity of the three primary colours plus green, for each square, and then mix the colours and paint a brick. The green helps make the painting a little more cohesive in colour, and I’m definitely sure he didn’t use true randomness because too many of these shades are vibrant instead of muddy. I’m on to you, Gerhard. But yea I can do something like this to cover up a big bland wall in my apartment
  • Sometimes you see a real piece by someone you’re expecting to be impressed by since it’s a Big Name and it’s just kinda lame
“Cronos”, Noguchi, 1947. Why is this guy considered visionary again?? Idk maybe it was cool for 1947
  • Other times pieces do actually live up to the hype if you see them in person. I did not expect to be so moved by Rothko, but at SF I saw my second Rothko piece and the experience was as weird and sublime as the first. I didn’t take a pic because it’s really much a deal of You Need to See Them in Person and Have Them Loom Over You Like A Cloud of Emotion, and the emotion felt too sacred to try to capture in a camera lens.
  • Can make you feel unexpected emotions, unintentionally. Here is a gallery description introducing you to the works of Günther Förg, whose works I enjoyed.
What struck me about this is that we will never, ever be able to use lead as a medium like this ever again – purely for its material properties, with no regard to the harm that they pose. Even if someone chooses to use lead like this they’ll be forced to like comment on the implications of the health risks of the medium, or deliberately not comment on it, or something even more obnoxious. The gallery itself mediated the experience of viewing the works in an unintentional way as well. Most placards around the museum had small, unintrusive “don’t touch!” icons that were easy to dismiss. The placards in this gallery said, in angry bold text, something like “no seriously do not touch these paintings, they will bring serious harm to your body and your children”. Unexpected frisson there for sure! Maybe you can even say that it is a commentary on the power of art :y
  • Can make you feel unexpected emotions, intentionally, and possibly even grant you superpowers for a bit. I do have a pic for this one but it’s another example of something you need to see in person to understand.
“IKB 174”, Yves Klein, 1958. Before there was vantablack and the pinkest pink, this guy named Yves Klein invented a supersaturated blue pigment and became obsessed with it. All of his works use it, and he patented it as “International Klein Blue”. I kind of wrote it off, but it is in fact without a doubt the most beautiful colour that I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. The screens and photos will never do it justice. The paint was thick, pastelly and a little gritty, and you can see bumps of it on the canvas. The shadow that they cast was a subtle and beautiful purple, instead of a more shaded blue, which delighted and shocked me. After noticing this, for the rest of the day, my eyes were a thousand times more sensitive to the shade that various colours turned when they were partially enshadowed, and that lead to a dozen more moments of awe. thank u yves klein i owe u my life

Things to keep in mind as you go through the exhibits:

  • It’s different than a classical art museum, because so many more things fall under modern art – weird sculpture, multimedia pieces, performance art, etc, and also a lot of the pieces come from newer artists that haven’t been time tested yet. I think this leads to a wider spread in quality: there are more pieces that are sublime, and more that are pretty trash. At a normal art museum you just look at paintings and feel slight emotions sometimes, it’s a much more reserved affair. You’re probably not going to find a piece that makes you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut or that teaches you to look at the world in a brand new light.
  • Some artists really phone it in sometimes and it shows. And again, a lot of the pieces are at the museum because of like, tax writeoff shenanigans. These come in the form of something like:
    • Rich person buys art off a guy for 5k
    • Rich person gets art appraised and now the art is worth 30k because the artist is very popular in the new york art scene or whatever
    • Rich person donates art as an in-kind donation worth 30k and can write that off on their taxes.
  • You should feel extra ok about trusting your own analysis on modern art – we haven’t settled on whether or not any particular artist is good, the way we’ve settled on like, classial artists. (All the classical artists you know are “good”, the rest are lost to history or obscurity) And again, most of them are scams, so don’t feel the need to be like “I don’t get it probably because I don’t know enough art history” when you think a piece is really dumb.
  • Hell, most modern artists don’t know their art history. I know this is the case because the museums will point it out to you each time when someone actually knows their art history and does something clever with it. Their pieces are definitely a lot cooler, but they’re definitely the exceptions more than the rule.

If you are an art person and pissed off about any of what I wrote, please invite me to go to a modern art museum with you so you can explain art to me! <3

Donations, The First Year

2021 was my first year with a full-time, steady source of employment, and money that accumulates instead of going right back into tuition and living expenses.

Having identified as an Effective Altruist (EA)1 for the better part of a decade, one thing I was looking to the most from this was the ability to finally make a substantial difference through the unit of caring.

For someone who’s identified as an Effective Altruist for the better part of a decade though, it was embarrassingly easy for sentiment to get my goat.

😓😓😓

Where We Gave

My girlfriend and I donated ~10% of our combined post-tax income, as stipulated by the Giving What We Can pledge. However, we failed to donate it all to effective charities, so it can’t really be said that we uh actually fulfilled the terms of the pledge. Thankfully I am very neurotic about not breaking any oaths so I have prepared for this moment by never actually officially signing up for the pledge, despite having identified as an effective altruist for zzzzzzz.

Here is where it went:

40% to global health initiatives via the RCForward Global Health Fund.2

15% to environmental advocacy via the RCForward Climate Change Fund.

15% to Spectrum, Kitchener-Waterloo’s queer community space. They do a lot of cool stuff and maintain a very active calendar of events.

15% to A Better Tent City, a cheap, no-barrier alternative to shelters in Kitchener. Instead of doing the shelter model where they turn everyone out during the day and then accept them back at night using a first-come-first serve basis (which is bad since demand outnumbers supply so there’s no sense of security for any shelter users), ABTC serves a more permanent community by giving them tiny homes to live in.

15% to the KWCF Immigration Partnership Fund for Immigrant and Refugee Initiatives, to support programs and initiatives for Afghan refugees starting their new life in Waterloo Region.

On Donating Locally

To be honest, I’m still not really sure if doing what was basically a 50/50 split between effective and local charities was the right move. It’s definitely something I want to think through in more detail before this year’s donations.

What we donated to local charities combined would be enough to save the lives of like two children if we donated it to a Givewell recommended global health charity, and I wouldn’t expect it to have that sort of impact here – although I think the value to local donations might be higher than you’d expect. I might write a post about this later.

I think you can definitely argue that donating to local charities could be put in the same bucket as, like, signing up for local pottery classes (some fun, some stimulation of the local economy), or heck maybe even home decor (beautifying your immediate area entirely for your own benefit) – something you do for warm fuzzies more than you do because it’s the right thing to do.

On the other hand, I do think that having a sense of rootedness in where you live is virtuous (and a pretty big force multiplier in doing stuff that’s good), and I genuinely do think that local charities are neglected and can be very powerful.

Getting My Goat

Stuff about local/effective donations aside, I think my local charities were honestly pretty terribly chosen and motivated entirely by my lame monkey emotions. Spectrum because I’m gay and I attended some events that they hosted, and I had a really good time. ABTC because I work with people who are on the project and it seems cool. The refugee fund because I was following their story in local papers and they did a good job tugging on my heartstrings.

I mean look I did look into everyone’s annual reports and make sure that they’re legit, and in the case of the refugees I ended up donating to my second choice since the first was literally in the middle of a money laundering scandal, but I basically made up the categories out of whole cloth since I didn’t have a super rigorous idea of what I wanted to do.

I also didn’t donate to what I think is equivocally the best and also most neglected charity in the region, because I thought it would be awkward since I work there (I work there because I researched nonprofits in the region to apply to jobs at and this seemed like very obviously the best one), which is honestly a pretty terrible reason. Especially since it’s actually very easy to donate anonymously, but to be fair I only realized this after we did all our donations.

I will state though for the record that the donor wall didn’t actually factor into my decision making process at all. That was just a joke I swear.

Tentative Plan for 2022

Aggressive/Risky: Donate 10% of income to effective charities in global health and environmental advocacy, in something like a 70/30 split. Definitely pay attention to new environmental projects. Treat local donations as a separate budget category that pulls from our spending money, and donate only to the one I like. Executing this means risking not doing any local donations.

Moderate/Safe: Donate 10% of income in a 70/20/10 split for global health, environmental advocacy, and local organizations respectively. I think this is what I actually want to do, rationally, monkey emotions aside. Peter Singer still wouldn’t Officially Recognize Me As A Good Person if I go this route, but I think about this in terms of harm reduction – the more I enjoy the giving process, the more likely I am going to do continue to do it in following years. Ensuring that the experience of donating remains pleasant for me is how I ensure that the world gets donations from me for the rest of my life, and if that means local charities get a cut, it’s still better than if my monkey emotions start rioting and I stop donating in 5 years when my earning power is higher.

  1. If you’ve never heard of Effective Altruism before, I recommend this introduction.[]
  2. As a Canadian, RCForward is the only solution I’ve found to donate to many Givewell approved charities and still get tax receipts.[]

Creative Commons License copyleft jenn.site 2015-2022 💛