Interdependence, ex-vegetarians, crossing the streams.

Been thinking so much about being vulnerable with people and asking for help, while sorting through surprising and painful life changes. Noticed this old quote kicking around as a draft and liked it all over again today. It’s about food, but I’m thinking about feelings when I read the bit about not trying to get out of debt, not trying to be self-contained.

In his book Long Life, Honey In The Heart Martin Pretchel writes of the Mayan people and their concept of kas-limaal, which translates roughly as “mutual indebtedness, mutual insparkedness.” “The knowledge that every animal, plant, person, wind, and season is indebted to the fruit of everything else is adult knowledge. To get out of debt means you don’t want to be part of life, and you don’t want to grow into an adult,” one of the elders explains to Pretchel.

… This is a concept we need, especially those of us who are impassioned by injustice. I know I needed it. In the narrative of my life, the first bite of meat after my twenty year hiatus marks the end of my youth, the moment when I assumed the responsibilities of adulthood. It was the moment I stopped fighting the basic algebra of embodiment: for someone to live, someone else has to die. In that acceptance, with all its suffering and sorrow, is the ability to choose to live a different way, a better way.

— From The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith, page 5.

Ex-vegetarian inspiration strikes again.

Consciousness raising, possible to be more open, things that can be learned.

Xiu Xiu: It was more after having read his books. I don’t think I could’ve written a song like that without having read his books. [laughs] I don’t know how to put this. He raised my consciousness about how far you can push something. He helped me to feel— not necessarily that it was okay to be more open— but that it was possible to be more open. It wasn’t so much that he made me feel that being open was acceptable; he served as a model for openness because he’s so successful at it— at frankness. Does that make sense?

Jamie Stewart talking to Pitchfork in 2006 (Yes, quoting from the Hipster Times on personal growth. See also burning buildings.)

Good spells, burning buildings, Alan Moore, Leslie Feinberg.

Alan Moore

I ingested a lot of Alan Moore media when The Watchmen movie came out this month, and I really loved his take on magic (in the sense of spells and incantations, not card tricks) in a interview with Stewart Lee. The magic topic starts at about 5:30 of part three. (Part 1, and part 2 if you want them.)

I suppose the thing with magic is that a lot of it is about writing anyway. “To cast a spell.” That’s a fancy way of saying spelling. Grimoire, the big book of magical secrets. That’s a French way of saying ‘grammar.’ It’s all about language and writing. It’s all about incantation. It’s all about all these things. And so magic, really, it turns out to just be a continuation of the stuff I’ve been doing anyway. Using certain arrangements of words or images to affect people’s consciousness.

I decided to keep that for my multi-year quest about how to communicate. Magick and neo-paganism is a minefield of gender terrorism and cultural appropriation, a bring your own analysis situation. But still, folks who are into magical spells do have a lot of ideas and practice related to speaking intentionally.

After keeping it on my (giant) reading list for years, I finally read Stone Butch Blues recently, and I saved this quote about semi-applicable resources.

I felt as though I was rushing into a burning building to rescue the ideas I needed in my own life.

It’s been a pretty good spell so far— I say it a lot when I’m getting inspired by a book that has a lot of problems and maybe embarrasses or enrages me. It’s good for books written by druids.

Unyeasted bread, quests.

Unyeasted breads have a deep, hearty, honest spirit with a certain substantial integrity. Dense and thick-crusted, they require a good bread knife for cutting and a certain endurance for chewing…

No matter how much I mentioned the dense, “bricklike” nature of some of these breads, still I received many letters from people wondering why the bread came out of the oven like a piece of building material. O.K., they are not to everyone’s taste, but some people really like this sort of thing: “How real,” they say, “How flavorful.”

— Edward Espe Brown in The Tassajara Bread Book, 25th Anniversary Edition

I’ve been finding a lot of inspiration in a particular kind of far-out food book. Not dietary inspiration; something like philosophical inspiration. Emotional inspiration? Attitude inspiration. The connecting thread seems to be authors who used to practice more extreme diets. Former vegans, former macrobiotics, former hippies. Some of these books have consistent ways of respecting radicalisms and moderations at the same time, finding another level of inclusion where you get the thorough, grounded ethics of radical thought without the isolating righteousness. I find myself re-reading bits of non-content like the introduction to a recipe, just for the tone or the attitude.

Does that Bread Book passage do any of that for anybody else? I know I’m reading the way I need to read.

This is helping me rename a personal communication quest that I’ve been naming and renaming for, I don’t know, fifteen years? My teenaged fixation was how to be honest and also nice (both in the sense of liked and in the sense of kind). Later it was how to have a critical analysis without alienating people who don’t. How to be compassionate without self-censorship. How to make space for differences without them being cast as disagreements or negativity. How to maintain boundaries without being judgmental. Consideration without passivity. Empathy without enabling. Belonging without conformity. How to make connections across differences. All of these draft mission statements have been discarded or modified, but I’m getting somewhere. I want to joke that it wouldn’t be hard to be both more honest and more kind than teenaged me, but that isn’t true. It has been hard!

Flipping through a chapter called Vegetarian Ethics and Humane Meat that kept me up late last night, I have totally failed to find a quotable section. I started just collecting words. “Much depends,” “life and death and life,” appreciation, reflection, mistakes, “not so easy,” “Plan B,” courage, “emotionally spent,” responsibility, “more directly involved,” experiments, clumsy, “I’m very curious,” “our memories diverge… isn’t memory funny?” Vocabulary for a big, thoughtful mess.

Who said that keeping up with fashion is the ultimate way to create anxiety? Connecting people in a big mess seems like the opposite to that. Seeking ways for many fashions to co-exist together is comforting and useful. So I guess that’s the communication quest for now. It must seem like this is too abstract to possibly be useful in my real life, but I bet I will refer to this in the next 24 hours, trying to explain a decision or action to someone. “It’s like the unyeasted bread! I know how to do this!”

Alternatives to handsome.

Sarah H commented about handsomeness and masculinity.

I find it really useful to consider ideas of handsomeness in relation to concepts of masculinity— I can see where my own notions of handsomeness are based in someone (of any gender) being visibly self-controlled, unemotional and hardened. I wonder how we can reclaim words like this— like how do we compliment our loved ones on looking cute, without using words that reinforce these concepts of masculinity? I have tended to use the word handsome, but now it doesn’t seem appropriate.

I am interested in this too. I hadn’t considered the word handsome before, but I use it a lot (also to describe a person of any gender). After some reflection, I think for me it is a replacement for saying something more personal and honest. I’m making a judgment about beauty and gender instead of attending to my feelings and needs. There is an idea I like in non-violent communication, that making judgments reinforces hierarchy and external authority. From Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life:

Most of us grew up speaking a language that encourages us to label, compare, demand, and pronounce judgments rather than to be aware of what we are feeling and needing. …

Life-alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical or domination societies. Where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals for their own benefit, it would be to the interest of kings, czars, nobles, etc. that the masses be educated in a way that renders them slave-like in mentality. The language of wrongness, “should” and “have to” is perfectly suited for this purpose: the more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves— to outside authorities— for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good and bad. When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings.

To work for anarchist/non-hierarchical relationships, I’ve been practicing not judging things as “masculine” or “feminine” and instead just saying what they are and how I feel about them. E.g., If I let go of describing a boy or man as effeminate, I can usually find more accurate, specific observations. Maybe he’s caring and kind, and likes to wear bright colours. And maybe I feel happy about that because I value kindness and diverse clothing options. I forget this all the time, but when I remember to get specific I like the way it makes me more aware of both the person and myself. I also like that it goes beyond resisting within binary gender and gets outside of gender altogether. Instead of questioning who can have feminine qualities, it is a way of questioning why we call some things feminine at all. I think that celebrating a man or boy for his feminine qualities still reinforces that passive, traumatized personalities are called feminine while aggressive, traumatized personalities are called masculine.

I’m thinking I could replace “handsome” the same way, with concrete observations and personal feelings. On top of letting go of judgments about gender (anyone can have a strong jaw or dark eyebrows), it would skip judgments about who looks more or less beautiful. Previously I’ve tried celebrating everyone as beautiful “in their own way” but I find it works the same way as celebrating genderblurred masculine and feminine qualities. It still reinforces the idea that I can judge who is beautiful or ugly and that it matters. I’d rather find ways to take responsibility for what I see and how I feel about it.

That has me wondering what I am trying to communicate when I tell someone they look handsome. I like to look at them? That is still very vague. I think they have social power because they fit a currently fashionable ideal look? I don’t want to play that game. When I look at their nose I feel hot and bothered? That is more what I’m aiming for. I think I’m using compliments as a substitute for conversations about desire and sensual appreciation. Wow. I would way rather have the desire/appreciation conversation.

I’m going to try eliminating handsome from my vocabulary for a few days, to find out what else I can talk about. I’m not sold on permanently eliminating words that describe judgmental categories because I also use them to talk about politics and the categories themselves, but a temporary ban seems like a good experiment in awareness.

More ideas?

Down with praise, emotional dentistry, granfallooning.

I continue to publish drafts that have been lingering in the archives. This one lingered because it was veering towards criticising my friends and I was too scared and distracted to get it to a place that was honest and compassionate instead of either judgmental or passive. Check out how non-intense it is. This is the type of stuff that has been terrifying me for years. It’s kind of funny.

. . .

9 Feb 2008

I just went to the dentist for the first time in about seven or eight years. This particular dentist is explicitly “an emotional guy” who gives a lot of compliments about teeth, and expresses a lot of care and encouragement about your dental health. Full on, “I know I just met you, but I really care about your teeth and gums, because I know that dental health can really impact a person.” Totally sincere, enthusiastic. OK. Awesome. It also ran right into this discomfort I have with receiving compliments and praise, which I thought about a lot on the walk home from my appointment.

So I’ve been wanting to write out my ideas about praise and compliments, but I’ve determined that first I need to deal with this other dentist-related thing, being that a lot of my friends go to the same dentist and I’m a bit afraid of sparking some “we’re all in the Dr. Bjornson club!” celebrations. (This is a real “everything good is actually bad!” kind of post. I dislike compliments, and furthermore I dislike belonging! No fun allowed!) I’ve been belatedly discovering Kurt Vonnegut’s books, and in the last one I read (Cat’s Cradle), he uses this invented word, granfalloon, to describe an allegiance based on a shallow or pointless shared trait, like being from Iowa or going to the same dentist. I am happy to have this word, even just to clarify for myself that I don’t want to avoid all kinds of belonging. Only granfallooning gets the diss, because it is meaningless and distracting, and is, I think, a kind of vanity.

. . .

So, then, over a year later, I’ve thought a lot about my problem with compliments. I think there are two parts; one where I’m crazy and one where some compliments are crazy. I have book quotes to go with both of these.

The part about living in a crazy world is like this. From Nonviolent Communication.

Conventional compliments often take the form of judgements, however positive, and are sometimes offered to manipulate the behavior of others.

And the part about my own craziness goes like this. From Women Who Run With The Wolves, in a chapter about procrastination and creative blocks.

Troublesome contaminants in the river [of soul/creativity] are obvious when a woman turns away sincere compliments about her creative life. There may be only a little pollution, as in the offhanded “Oh, how nice you are to give such a compliment,” or there may be massive trouble on the river: “Oh, this old thing” or “You must be out of your mind.” … These are all signs of an injured animus. Good things flow into the woman but are immediately poisoned.

Not that my teeth are my creative life, but being a person who was both terrible at accepting compliments and struggling with intense procrastination at the same time, I figure it translates.

Re-entry, being Scottish, the other end of cultural appropriation, not yet being able to write short sentences but maybe one day.

I’ve been sitting here for three weeks attempting to write my grand re-debut in blogging, where I would declare my intention to overshare again like I haven’t since about 2002, note that a lot of anxiety that I was blaming on work deadlines actually seems to stem from not writing enough about things I care about, and delve into the limitations I’ve been accidentally sticking to regarding not scaring my family or offending my friends or embarrassing my partner, but how about I skip that for now since it has become a bit of an albatross, and just post something already?


So I’ve been thinking about European ethnicities, whiteness, colonialism, and cultural appropriation, and what I need to do to make sense of being, apparently, of 100% Scottish ancestry.

This Scottishness is new-ish information because my dad was adopted. Until my dad (or my mum?) saw his adoption paperwork a couple of years ago I thought of myself as half Scottish, half mystery, and really, mostly as a generic white settler person. Lately it has occurred to me that if I can get more rooted in being a specifically Scottish-descended settler person, I might be able to use that to subvert whiteness a bit. I’m thinking that since whiteness works as a generic, supposedly neutral, supposedly non-racial racial quality, then knowing my ethnicity better might help me to be more aware of whiteness instead of taking it for granted, and also might help start conversations about race and privilege in everyday life. This is very early stages here. I get the impression a lot of people have thought about this, and I have a lot of reading and thinking to do. I don’t know what “understanding my Scottishness” would look like yet. I’m hesitant to suddenly care about kilts and druids partly because maybe they aren’t relevant to me, and partly because I associate, e.g., Celtic knotwork jewellery with New Agers and metal bands. More on that in a minute.

This is part of a bigger, backwards personal growth quest. Years ago I started reading about death and dying, and got interested in denial. There’s a lot of writing about denial in radical politics and anti-oppression work. Privilege and denial, collusion and denial, performance and pretending. Darkdaughta writes (or did write, when she was public) especially clear analyses of how personal denial perpetuates political oppression.

Trying to be thoroughly anti-oppressive, then, merges right up with trying to be an honest person, and both missions lead to sorting through my family dynamics, my parents’ families, and back and back. It’s useful to apply some historical context and political analysis to all of that. So again, I have a lot more reading and thinking and talking to do.

For starters, I’ve been hunting for general history about Scotland and colonialism. It is very easy to find writing about the oppression of Scotland by England, but, predictably, harder to find anti-colonial perspectives on Scottish settlers.

This caption was the first promising thing I found: Professor Geoff Palmer of Heriot-Watt University believes Scotland is still in denial over its role in British slavery. A signal! Involving the codeword, denial! I found some leads and put some books on hold at the library about Scotland and colonialism.

Towards the end of that article though, they are talking about other aspects of the Scottish diaspora, and the subject turns to cultural appropriation.

David Hesse, an “urban intellectual from Zurich”, who gave up a journalism career to study in Edinburgh, says: “You could call my field the imagined diaspora. I investigate highland games in Germany and Scottish clubs in eastern Europe. I look at people dressing up as Scots. Those people have no “real” Scottish ancestry but feel aesthetic connections. I think international fascinations with Scotland and Scottish-looking things are a phenomenon.”

Hesse sees imaginary Scottishness as an identity that is becoming increasingly popular in northern Europe. “It is a folk identity, but it is quite macho. It involves military music and martial games. It is also a generally white phenomenon.”

I laughed when I read that. Cultural appropriation has never inconvenienced me before, but I think this is what’s going on with my cautiousness towards anything celtic. It’s been taken over by metal bands and the scented candle crowd. I’m used to thinking about cultural appropriation from the other end, choosing not to wear dreadlocks or sari silks, not to get tattoos of asian calligraphy, not to use imaginary ancient aboriginal terms for my menstrual period. I think Operation: WTF Scottish Roots is working already. Things that made intellectual sense make a little more experiential sense.

So, hi again internet. It’s been years since I wrote regularly and I think I must still write like a twenty two year old, but I’m ok with just spitting things out until I get the hang of it.

Excessive red and blue in my kitchen, being impressive, calendar trivia…

Red and blue kitchen.

For a moment I was feeling disappointed that I hadn’t come up with any simple theme for the photos I’ve been posting this week. (I don’t know if anyone even noticed them, but the matching sets of red and blue and crafty ideas and so on were making me more comfortable.) I got to thinking about the ways I use gimmicks like that whenever I make things, as a way to add automatic value to whatever I produce. Obvious extra effort. If nothing else, the project will look like a lot of work, which is impressive in certain ways, by default. I’m trying to stop doing that automatically and cut to the chase more. Be more honest instead of more impressive. Probably every adult thinks about this at least a little bit, in some context. I thought I was doing alright with this personal growth project, but then at a festive feast with my extended family, a cousin’s friend commented that I seemed well read. That’s probably my number one trying-to-impress-you habit, being smart. It’s complicated, because I do like to learn things and I do like to share what I find out and not hoard it, but if I want to be your friend I will almost surely start telling you a lot of fanciful trivia related by a larger theme instead of, for example, asking you to tell me about things you seem to know that I don’t. Reading about DIY education is helping me work on this. It makes nonconsensual teaching really, really embarrassing.

So. As my early morning mind-map hopefully explains, I was all set to embrace the non-patterned nature of my really low-effort holiday posts. Then I got to thinking about how much I love the way the last week of the calendar year can get divorced from daily reality and kind of out of time. Students and lots of workers are on holiday from their regular schedules, you never know when shops are going to be open, many households have visitors or go visiting, a lot of people eat really strangely… Regular patterns don’t hold. It reminds me of an ancient Roman intercalary festival that I can’t remember the name of. So now of course, that’s my theme for this week’s little photos. Intercalary disorder. I think this sort of doubly violates my goal of not acting so impressive.

Being useful, being dead

I just found this really old draft from my notes on death and dying. My lag time idea is really starting to shape up!

I’ve been working my way through Heidegger’s being-toward-death ideas from Being and Time, with the help of a How To Read Heidegger guidebook. It all hinges on death as nothing, non-existence, non-being (uh, non-Being).

Death, as possibility, gives Dasein nothing to be ‘actualized’, nothing which Dasein, as actual, could itself be.

(Dasein being basically a self-aware entity, a person. I blaspheme. Here’s a more thorough explanation.)

One irrelevant aside before I get to my point: my How To Read Heidegger guide was published in the US and written by an American, but uses European typographic conventions (in the quote above, the comma is outside of the quotation marks, for example). Presumably this is because that’s how Heidegger wrote? I didn’t notice the punctuation in Being and Time at all, but reading an American book with this old country punctuation was actually making me feel weird and scholarly. Using an alternate prose style guide— yikes!

Anyway. Death as non-Being. I just finished reading Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which, in a way, is all about the kinds of being you can pull off when you’re dead. She talks about cadavers having superpowers— not being able to feel pain, for example— and being uniquely qualified to fill certain medical and research roles. She spends serious energy insisting on the importance of being an organ donor, of being useful to other people after death.

I ran into that same phrase at Body Worlds in Vancouver. Being useful. The body donation forms have checkboxes where donors can fill in their motivations, including items about serving a good cause and contributing to medical research. My memory of the poster at the exhibit (in 2006) was an option about “continuing to be useful after I’m dead,” but maybe that was just the vibe I got from this set of options (from the 2007 form).

Excerpt from body donation consent form

That makes sense in a very practical way (what else are you going to use that body for?), but at the time it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and it still does. Telling people they can be useful after death borders on exploitative, to me. There are sane reasons to do something useful with your body, but there could be some unfortunate denial that I wouldn’t want to encourage. It’s a twist on the usual spiritual afterlife— “yes, you still die, but not all the way.”

Not to mention the striking similarity that the “motivation” section of the body donation form bears to a market research questionnaire. In Vancouver, the Body Worlds exhibit ended with a big display about becoming a body donor, with posters and consent forms. It was positioned right in the exit, so everyone had to walk through it, the way museums often position the gift shop. Creepy! And not because of the dead bodies! The whole thing struck me as a self-perpetuating industry, a closed circle of marketing. The exhibit is designed to convince people to donate their bodies to make more exhibits to attract more donors to make more exhibits… A bit of a pyramid scheme.