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).[]

The Car Ride Home

[Epistemic effort: a dreamy recollection of some events that occurred on April 29th, 2019]

It’s late April. My school term has ended, but I have two weeks before my internship starts in another city, and my dad is driving my back home to hang out for a while in the meantime. As is tradition for I suspect possibly a lot of CBCs like me, the best of Teresa Teng, a 70s Taiwanese superstar, is being blasted at full volume inside the car.
 
“I think I first heard these songs when I was the age that your brother is now,” he tells me, for the first time. Henry is finishing up 10th grade right now. He’s gone nocturnal in recent years and is just beginning to think about summer jobs and what university he wants to go to. “It was the first time I’ve heard music that wasn’t communist propaganda. I immediately fell in love with her.”
 
I mull this around in my head, integrating this tidbit into the rest of what I know about his childhood.

Falling in someone without seeing their face, but because of their voice and because of what they were singing sounds. Sounds romantic, sounds pure, sounds like something that isn’t possible now.
 
“So did every boy I knew who listened to any of her songs,” he continued. He’s in a chatty mood, which I always enjoy. “I would always feel a little guilty listening to her though, because I was committing a crime. Her songs were banned on the mainland; it was illegal to enjoy something so bourgeoisie.”
 
It’s sad to think about, what it would be like to live in a society where romantic love was considered decadent and sinful. To me, Teresa wasn’t really singing about anything that was like, Rich Kids of Instagram worthy. She was singing about the soft, tender feelings that emerge when you do something like waiting for a boy to return to you. Is my distinction of the two just a sign that I’ve lived too long in the Decadent West?

After a few more songs where I ponder this, I resume the conversation. “Dad, if her songs were illegal, how did you get a hold of them in the first place?”
 
I admit, I was kind of imagining a literal black market, a nightly enterprise operating from the hours of midnight to 3am, with sketchy vendors in darkened stalls hawking their ill-gotten wares under the moonlight. Even as I generated the image I felt a little silly, and yet-
 
“I recorded it from a friend,” he told me. I deflated a little bit, but he didn’t notice. “My parents bought me a cassette player for ninety bucks, because English classes began in middle school. We used this tape called ‘900 English phrases’ to practice diction.”
 
He goes on, already knowing what question I was going to ask next. “Ninety bucks would be what your granddad and grandma makes in a month, combined. But there weren’t a lot of expenses then, either. The apartment we lived in was collectively owned, so rent was five dollars a month.”
 
I try to think of how much that is in terms that are useful to me, but then realized that that would get depressing real fast and stopped.
 
“So I would go buy some blank cassettes, and go to a friend who already had some songs, and get them to play it, and record it onto my own tapes to take home.”
 
“How was, uh, how was the quality?”
 
“Ha! Utter crap. The chain of recording could have been 20 people deep for all I know. The genuine tapes were rare; you’d need to be a fairly high up bureaucrat to get it across the border.”
 
I listen to the crystal clear recording that we have on with a newfound appreciation. “When did you finally hear it the way that it was meant to sound?”
 
“By the time I got to university, there were vendors selling tapes that were advertised as being recorded from an original recording, but the quality was still kind of bad. I don’t think I listened to a genuine recording until after I started working. I would have been older than you are now.”
 
I try to imagine what it would be like to hear something with crystal clarity for the first time, after 10 years of waiting. The album ends, and loops back to the first song. We drove on, appreciating the music.

Articles of Interest, October-November 2018

Oops, it’s December. Thankfully, this blog is my private property, so I can do things like announce a special double feature, even though what I’m actually doing is just giving you half the content in twice the time. It’s fine, guys. It’s fine.

Some good posts I read in the last two months:

The fantastically named Big Block of Cheese Day dot tumblr dot com on a reasonable comments section on a conservative blog (archive)

While failson men surely do deserve moral blame for not pulling the trigger, there are significant cultural norms that have mutated to make it even more difficult. How many marriages, throughout history, that grew into a state of love and commitment began with a shotgun wedding and a full belly? In a culture where birth control is available, few expect marriage before cohabitation, and sex is free and easy, how much blame are we assigning to the men? Of course they are behaving this way. They are living out what was taught to them.

I wish there was more of this content on the internet. I think a lot of conservatives are rightfully upset at the system and might be in a lot of pain, and while I don’t blame them for lashing out, I can’t understand them when they do that. Recently though, I’ve found a handful of good right-leaning sources.

American Affairs Journal, which I might have linked in a previous articles post consistently serves up really good, intelligent #discourse, and I’m honestly pretty surprised that they consider themselves right of centre. Ozy, who is a very smart, lefty feminist, also has a list here of content creators that I will check out eventually.

This piece on how quietly radical The Little Mermaid is (archive)

There is a reason the destruction of Ariel’s grotto harrowed me more as a child than any other scene in a Disney film. I could hardly watch it. I hid my face. I begged my family to skip scene. I was reduced to a sobbing mess. On a personal level, it harrowed me more than the destruction of Cinderella’s dress. 

That reason is because, in watching the scene, I felt the pain of a place of refuge being invaded. By the time we reach the destruction of the grotto, we are as emotionally invested in Ariel’s collection as she is because we see that the objects are more than objects. They are extensions of herself, encapsulating all her feelings of hope and hopelessness.

Destroying those items is like annihilating a part of her soul.

That is why I hate the “she gave up her voice for a man” line of thought so much. Because it so blatantly disregards the context of the film. Because it paints Ariel as a shallow teenager. Because it places blame for what follows solely on Ariel’s shoulders and absolves Triton of any wrongdoing.

Auuuurgh I love it I love it I love it. It’s kind of really messed up that a lot of Disney Princesses movies are actually quite radical, but because they are marketed towards girls, lots of people tend to automatically dismiss them and assume that they’re just about “getting the guy” etc. It actually seems like Disney itself has started doing this recently, as point out by this piece that actually made the shortlist for this post. Of course that isn’t too
surprising, unfortunately many examples of a franchise “selling out” exist. Here is a piece on something similar happening in Star Trek as well. One place, conversely, where this definitely DID NOT happen is Star Wars. I will fight you on this. I don’t even like Star Wars that much but I’ll put em up. TLJ has stuck to its roots so hard and I love Rey and Finn and Poe forever. Now, you won’t ever catch me ousside because I don’t go outside, but I am Extremely Logged On and, like, the sidebar tells u like 5 ways that u can reach me by right there. Let’s start dukin it out on LinkedIn. See if I care. I don’t, unless you’re talking smack about TLJ. Let’s move on before I embarrass myself further.

This Wired piece, which confidently proclaims that [thing that I have never heard of] is “synonymous with online communication in its best, worst, and, above all, most vital forms.”

…I won’t blame Wired for being out of touch though. It’s just that the piece was written in 1997.

To be on The Well in 1985 was, even in the technically hip Bay area, to be that rare person for whom a modem was just another tool. Owning one that transmitted data at 1,200 bits per second put you on the cutting edge. The Macintosh had 128K of memory and no hard drive. Most personal computers were DOS-based. MCI’s email service, MCI Mail, had recently come on the market, but it had nothing to do with bringing people together in groups. The university-centered Arpanet was a closed society whose members had little awareness of what a few people in Sausalito were doing. Moreover, Arpanet—and the Internet that was quickly supplanting it—was an experiment in the technical problems of computer networking itself. Studying the cultural effects of bringing people together online wasn’t on Arpa’s agenda. Small BBSes were around, but they had about them the whiff of a lonely nerd’s hangout. Although The Well had no shortage of shy Unix hackers, something about it felt different.

So many of the features described here, and the way that the container shapes the culture of the place, and the drama that played out, are things that I’ve seen shades of during my decade on the internet. It’s mid-December and Tumblr is going to start banning blogs in five days. I realize that the reason I stagger these is so that I can look at the pieces with clear eyes, emotionally removed from the heated argument of the day. But this piece is 20 years old, and there’s too much for me to talk about here. People who I’ve followed for years and years are moving off, and my community is preparing to scatter. There’s a chance that this all blows over and things don’t end immediately, but that doesn’t matter. The death spiral has begun, and whether it takes two months or two years, everyone’s going to leave.

There won’t be anything like Tumblr when it’s gone, because of the way that it was built. Even if the community remains the same, the content will change. This was true when people moved from LiveJournal to Tumblr in 07 and after en masse, and it is true now. The Well, and the way that it was described, reminds me a little of Tumblr, and 4Chan, and Discord, with fainter shades of everything else. But there will never be anything exactly like The Well ever again, specifically because of the hard limitations then that can only ever by artificially imposed now.

But like the way The Well left ripples in internet culture, Tumblr will do the same. And everything will change, and everything will stay the same, and the children of gen Z will stumble across an epitaph of Tumblr, written in 2023, and will have these realizations too. So it goes.

This piece on rape culture, also from 20 years ago but unfortunately evergreen

All acts of violence that change our lives are also acts of betrayal. Rape is betrayal. Sexual abuse is betrayal. Finding out that your country is capable of vast atrocities is betrayal. Currently, our cultural vocabulary includes an image of the veteran who, though he may have been through episodic fragmentation, has come out stronger and, perhaps, more fully human. We have no such images for raped women. We don’t ever expect them to feel safe without a concerted mental effort and a protected environment. Logic alone would dictate that people who have been under fire and seen people blown to bits would have issues of safety as intense as people who were raped or abused, but we still judge their capability by separate standards. While some of that bias can be chalked up to old stereotypes that call men tough and women sensitive, that doesn’t account for all of it. Both rape and war involve traumatic violence. In recent years, feminists have fought hard to portray rape as an act of violence and not lust. While this has been necessary and difficult, it is somewhat misguided. The real problem is not that we treat rape as sex, but that we treat it as theft.

Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines rape as forced sex and also plunder—”robbing or despoiling,“ to be exact. Therefore, a raped woman is the victim of theft. You weren’t just violated, we tell her. You were pillaged. Something of intrinsic value was stolen from you. The fervent belief that this is true is evident on all sides of the issue. From traditional cultures that treat a raped woman as bankrupt to progressive movements that speak in terms of “reclaiming” oneself and “owning” the experience, we consistently use the language of theft. We tell a woman loudly and clearly that if she was sexually violated she has been robbed, and that the objects stolen were purity and innocence. With the best of motives, we still say to her, “I’m sorry for your loss.” We will ask her to “reclaim” her experience, rather than realize its effects. The truth is, if you were raped or abused, nothing was stolen from you. The low-life who did it threw his soul in the trash, but yours is intact. As long as we cling to the concept of rape or abuse as theft, we are ultimately led back to the belief that a woman’s worth and sense of self lie in her sexual purity. As long as the artifacts “stolen” are her defining virtues, we can speak of her condition only in terms of ownership and loss. To imply that deep within every woman is something essential that can be seen or touched, a vessel containing the real her that can be stolen by someone else, is an absolute objectifi­cation of women.

This piece is angry, and passionate, and says something that I 100% agree with. Activism can never be entirely detached from the culture of its birth, a culture that permeates everything they do. And indeed I’ve seen some shenanigans within the SJ sphere that, “conservative protestantism with a
gay hat
” (archive) very, very accurately describes. I would say that activists need to self-crit a lot more, but leftbook has ruined that phrase for me forever, because on there it basically means “I made a wild assumption about your level of privilege based on your Facebook profile, I have concluded from that that you are more privileged than me, and therefore you must defer to my opinion.” Yeah, I know. Leftbook. Worst three months of my life.

Lastly, this piece on the Chinese diaspora in Canada, and why it’s not a given that new immigrants vote left. 

By being barred from white and English-speaking labour markets, deskilled workers, undocumented workers, and migrants who don’t speak English are often forced into industries and sectors where regulations are weak and worker protections are low. Take, for example, the issue of wage theft: in a 2016 survey of 184 Chinese restaurant workers in the GTA, 43 per cent reported being paid below minimum wage. In one widely publicized incident, it was found that Regal Restaurants had stolen wages totaling more than $650,000 from over 60 Chinese restaurant workers in the GTA.

It is precisely the working-class and deskilled immigrant experiences that the right-wing operatives have tapped into, asking loaded questions like, “Is it fair that you worked so hard through all those poor jobs, just to pay taxes to support these ‘fake’ and morally questionable refugees?” These ideologies, when unopposed, move working-class people away from developing class consciousness and identifying their true oppressors.

Sadly, the left has often been uninvested in the struggles of Chinese and other racialized working-class immigrants. Some NDP campaigners told us they were instructed to avoid canvassing in Chinese communities in the lead-up to the recent elections, as it was assumed that Chinese Canadians would not be interested in left-wing demands. Based on these racialized assumptions, one NDP canvasser told us they expected “people to slam their doors in my face.” Instead, the canvasser discovered that when they actually spoke to residents in their language, “most [residents] found the NDP’s policies agreeable.” It was the lack of sustained political education, organizational power, and leftist Chinese media long before the 2018 election that ultimately meant many of these neighbourhoods voted for Progressive Conservatives.

I had such a hard time finding a short passage to excerpt, guys. I wanted to copy paste the entire thing. It’s a great primer into the Chinese diaspora in Canada. It talks about the death of Asian-American activism in the 70s, and how the ripple effects of that led to the PC party being able to tap into the racism that Chinese people continue to face, and why they voted overwhelmingly for the Fords, Rob and Doug. How the Liberals declawed them, and how much the NDP dropped the ball. And sweet Jesus, the amount of fake news that gets circulated around on WeChat. If you’re Chinese, and even if you’re not, you need to give this a read. I can’t believe I’m just finding out now about Briarpatch mag, because they. Are. Amazing!!!!!

At the same time, reading this piece makes me kind of melancholy. It kind of sucks that I’m unable to talk about this with the people that I want to the most: my parents. My Chinese is getting more broken by the day and it wasn’t too good to start with, because I moved here when I was six. There’s basically zero chance that I can get it to a level where I can talk about complex topics with my parents. I wonder how they feel, too, about having an adult daughter who has never had an intelligent conversation with them, who they have to keep simplifying their words for.

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