january blues · winter

Planning for the Rest of the Winter

December, I’m okay with. Early January even. We’ve got the mad rush to the end of term, a few weeks to work from home in our pyjamas, the holidays, and then the dreaded (or beloved) January conference season. There’s stuff to do, parties to go to, and the anticipation (at least for me) of the rituals of Christmas and of spending time with my family.

But the rest of the winter? Kind of dreading it already–the lack of light, everyone’s general malaise, no big bright spot on the horizon to look forward to and plan toward, and a distinct lack of long weekends (although thank goodness for Family Day). Knowing that the post-holiday slump is on the horizon (we’ve got a series called “the January blues” for a reason), I’m making plans now that I’m hoping will make my winter less woeful. This is partly my Canadian take on the Danish concept of hygge, and partly an attempt to give myself  a reason to love, rather than tolerate, the winter. Here’s what I’m planning, and some ideas for making this your very own winter wonderland:

  • cheap tickets to the ballet: there’s not a bad seat in the theatre, and I love a good excuse to get dressed up, compare my own lack of coordination to the dancers’, and drink champagne at intermission
  • snowshoeing in the city: Toronto Adventures organizes a whole bunch of outdoor activities in the city and around Southern Ontario that you don’t need a car for (which is great, since we don’t drive!)
  • hiking the ravine: as long as the stairs aren’t iced over, I’m refusing to give up one of the biggest advantages of living where I do, which is being ten minutes from a massive network of ravine trails that make you feel like you’re in the middle of the country
  • holiday movies at the local theatre: yes, I’ve seen Love, Actually a thousand times, but not on the big screen in plush seats with friends
  • skating!: I’m not a good skater (see lack of coordination above) but I love it anyway, and Toronto has a zillion free indoor and outdoor rinks
  • making better use of my library card: if I’m going to be stuck inside when the weather is bad, I’m going to use the time to best my last year’s reading list. And it’s even easier to do now that the library has an extensive collection of ebooks
  • actually using our fireplace: we’ve got a wee, formerly coal-burning, fireplace in our living room, and some winters I light it up maybe twice. While I’m not super comfortable with the implications for trees or the air of regularly building fires, the occasional one can’t help but make me feel cozy and warm, and watching the flames is great meditative entertainment
  • dressing for the season: I’m thankful to no longer be a fourteen year old who privileges cool over being bloody cold. I love and feel good in all of my winter gear, which is great because I’ll be walking the thirty minutes to and from work in all weathers. And at home, I’ve got a giant fleece robe, classic men’s pyjamas, and fuzzy slippers that make me feel glad it’s not July. 
  • perfecting my slow-cooker recipes: I’ve long been a slow-cooker skeptic, but two recent successes have made me reconsider. It was a total lifesaver to come home to a giant pot of chana masala on Tuesday night, and I’m going to try to keep the ball rolling with adaptations of some favourite meals, like beet bourguignon, pulled jackfruit sandwiches, and misr wot
What about you, dear readers? How do you make your winter days merry and bright? 
best laid plans · contract work · good things · january blues · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · women

Generous Thinking

If you ask me, Mondays sort of beg for some kind of genuine inspiration. Especially Mondays in January. Mondays are, in a micro-manner, a day to ever so slightly return to and reset your larger best laid plans. Sure, it is very easy to slip into Blue Monday mode, but let’s not today.

Why the optimism? Well, this weekend I have found myself thinking time and again about generosity. I thought about it on Friday evening when my partner and I went out for dinner with colleagues. Amidst the genuine anguish about what is happening on our campus here was such an undercurrent of real, palpable care for the spaces in which we work and especially for the students we teach in our classes. We talked about what’s wrong, got angry–righteously so!–about the many systemic injustices, and throughout it all I kept thinking ‘what luck, to be engaged in such generous thinking.’ Generosity was the electric current of the conversation. It kept us coming back from rage or frustration to a refrain of how much we care.

And then, on Saturday morning at oh-my-lord-o’clock I met a former student for coffee before she joined her badminton team for 8:30am game preparations. She took a bus from where the team was staying on the outskirts of the city to meet me. (I’ll admit, all I did was clean off the truck and drive, but it was c-o-l-d!!! and e-a-r-l-y!). There we sat, the only people in the coffee shop, and talked about her classes, my research, her plans for grad school, my intention to shake off fretfulness, the Taylor Swift channel on Songza, strategies for self-care in Canadian winter, how badminton differs from tennis (a lot!), and books we wanted to read.

Later that day, as I worked on a SSHRC application, I was grateful for my colleague’s generosity. As a contract academic faculty member I am not on the research services email list, yet she has continually made sure I get the information and support I need. I thought again with gratitude of the people who have read and edited the proposal on their own time. And I thought about my colleagues across the country who are joining the application. These people are completing the Canadian Common CV for me. How unspeakably generous! Seriously.

Some basic definitions of generosity include “a liberalness in sharing or giving,” and “willingness to give value to others.” In addition to some of the lovely conversations I have had this weekend, I have also come across that liberalness in sharing or giving on the web. Specifically, I have had the pleasure of coming across Ayelet Tsabari’s blog post outlining her reading intentions for last year. Tsabari writes that in 2014 she intended to read only writers of colour. In her post outlining her intent she is candid about her reasons and her reservations:

I thought of VIDA and CWILA and their yearly counts, which often spring an offshoot discussion about the lack of writers of colour in reviews and magazines. And I remembered that the brilliant Madeleine Thien recently spoke about the underrepresentation of writers of colour in literary awards. And then, I thought I should dedicate 2014 to only reading writers of colour. And immediately dismissed it as a silly idea and went to bed.

But I kept thinking about it. When I woke up that night to feed my baby, I thought of books by writers of colour I can’t wait to read and got excited. In 2011, when I only read short story collectionsI discovered many incredible writers I’d never heard of because I was always on the hunt for new collections, and I read more, simply because I made a public pledge to do so. It wasn’t a burden, but a blessing. I imagined this would be a similar experience; by imposing ‘restrictions’ on my reading list I would be reading more widely, not narrowly, the same way that writing under constraints may sometimes result in better writing. And I knew I’d have many great writers to choose from. Last year, Roxane Gay of The Rumpus had conveniently compiled a long list of writers of colour (a list in which I’m proud to be mentioned) in response to the argument that there are simply not enough writers of colour. That list would be a good place to start.
But the idea made me nervous.  Unlike reading books of short stories, this choice felt political. And coming from Israel, politics tend to scare the shit out of me. I shouldn’t be choosing books by authors’ ethnicity, should I? It’s so arbitrary, so random. But then again, what’s wrong with that? People choose to read books because they’re on the Giller list, or on Canada Reads, or on the staff picks at their local bookstore. People choose books based on covers and blurbs and titles and gut feelings. So why not this?
But I was still hesitant. Ethnicity is a complicated thing, and identities can be layered and shifting and blurry. Where do I draw the line? What about writers of mixed heritage? Or writers of colour who write about white people, or choose (stubbornly!) not to write about their heritage? (I loved this article which speaks about the expectation from writers of colour to write about their heritage and their heritage only, or to write novels that—as a dear friend of mine, an Indian-Canadian writer, has put it—“have mango trees.”)  And what about other minorities? LGBT writers? Writers from other cultures who aren’t ‘of colour’? And really, should we be even talking about race? It makes people so uncomfortable. (Read Tsabari’s whole post here)
How generous is this thinking? This willingness to be public, vulnerable, adamant, dedicated, and nervous? Tsabari, it seems to me, gives her readers something of value, and she does it for free. And then, just recently, she returns to give again by returning to her original intent and telling us about her experiences, about her thinking. You can read her post, “My Year of Reading Only Writers of Colour” here
Tsabari isn’t the only person out there thinking meaningful, challenging thoughts in public forums, but as I came across her writing this weekend I was grateful for her. For her generosity and for the generosity of others, like this blogger, who share their thinking, work, and resources. 
What kind of generosity have you come across in the academy or its vicinity,  readers? I’d love to have some more examples to buoy me through this January Monday and maybe, just maybe, right through until spring. 
january blues · saving my sanity

Stressors and Antidotes

It is 7 pm and I’m googling if and how to administer oil of oregano to children. My little one has been coughing–again–during the night, and tonight his skin feels warm, while his still chubby cheeks are rosier than usual. My mind starts racing with questions similar to the ones Aimée brought up: what about work tomorrow, which one of us can stay home? In truth, these questions come to the fore, because it’s easier to think about them than the heavier ones: how sick is he going to get? Is this a good-old cold, the umpteenth one this winter?  Or is this the dreaded pandemic that Public Health has been so loudly announcing?

Whichever the answer, kids’ sickness tops the list of my anxieties, and this beginning of the year–you know, the regular calendar year that most humans follow, as opposed to the academic one–seems rife like none other with mini-anxieties. These mini-anxieties, while quite innocuous on their own, have colluded to make early January feel like one of those weeks when you wonder whether it’s Friday already, only to remember it’s only a too-full a Monday. So I decided to tackle it with my all-purpose weapon–drumroll, please–the mighty list. [Just as an aside, have you noticed how many of us, if not all, here at Hook and Eye are list-makers? Can we have a show of hands, if you’re of the list-making sort, too?]

Whenever I get into a slump, I try to do what a lot of us have been prescribed as the optimum way to manage anxiety: breathe; get yourself outside and/or active; try to get some perspective. We’ve talked about all of these options at length here, and I only want to linger on the latter point. If parenthood has taught me anything, it’s how to take advantage of the little in-between moments, so I decided to start a list of little things that make me happy, and juxtapose it to a list of stressors.

Moments to myself
Small talk
New projects
New projects
Grocery shopping on my own
Incessant cold weather
Lack of sun
Lack of exercise
Having lunch with friends
Kids’ crying
Bed-time stories (the kids’ and mine, too)
Kids’ sickness

You’ve noticed that some items feature on both sides, and my aim is to intersperse the inevitable things on the right with stolen moments from the left column. And when those things on the left happen, to notice them consciously and to enjoy them fully.
And you? How has your year started? What are some of your happy-making and/or stress-inducing everyday or extraordinary things?
canada · january blues · research

‘Tis the season

I’ve worked on weather and climate history, off and on, over the past ten years (it was the subject of my MA and is also the focus of an on-going research project). In that time, I’ve moved from an interest in how historians can contribute to past climate reconstructions, to curiosity about how our social and cultural experiences of weather, climate, the seasons, storms, droughts, floods, shape our lives and histories. I continued to be fascinated learning about the complex environmental consequences of past climate change (like the climate changes at the end of the last major glaciation that caused a shift in seasonality – shorter and more abrupt seasonal shifts – that likely contributed to global species extinctions) and horrified at the models of future climate predictions and their implications. Nevertheless, as a historian my interests in climates past and present lie not with what people can tell us as objective observation stations about the changes in climate and environment around them, but how we feel the weather, and what that makes us do, and more broadly how have we gotten ourselves into our current mess when it comes to unprecedented, and potentially catastrophic climate change. (As I argue elsewhere, the problem we face is not excess CO2, it’s ourselves.)

As an environmental historian, I also love the fact that where I live helps me to understand our relationships with the rest of nature, climate included. Close to a decade living in Toronto and Vancouver helped me to understand urban environments. Living in Edmonton? I now get the place of daylight in the seasons. (Note that I don’t say Edmonton helps me understand urban environments!) I used to find that February was my low point of the year, when I was tired of dirty roads, cold weather, my winter wardrobe, and always running out of time. Now, it’s December-January. December, I’m always surprised by how bleak I feel as sunlight becomes a precious commodity. This year, I was taken aback at one point at how dismal my mood had become, until I remembered that it was December, which cheered me up considerably. January is worse, even though the days start to lengthen (we now get to drop our son off at daycare with some daylight) because it’s also the start of a new semester which I’m invariably much less prepared for than the fall semester. This, of course, speaks to the intersection of cultural and natural seasons. My husband loves March and April, because it’s still winter in the mountains, and long sunny days make for great skiing. As part of my research I now understand why daylight and moonlight figure as prominently in historical experiences of climate in the North, as do cold and ice – the more conventional representations of northern climate. I also better understand why Olaf Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Modern was one of the most compelling exhibitions I’ve ever been to.

So here’s to the end of the January! Good riddance.

january blues · new year new plan

This post brought to you by DayQuil, and Netflix

I’ve got the flu. Last night I went to bed under three duvets, with a hot Magic Bag at my feet, shivering uncontrollably. My hip joints hurt so badly I’d stuffed a big bolster under my knees. Lying thus flat-ish on my back, I clawed my sweaty hands into the guest room / sick room sheets while repeating my new mantra, “Don’t barf … Don’t … barf …” (The anti-fever and anti-cough medicines always make me very nauseated.)

My eyeballs hurt.

So I’m calling in sick. This ‘call,’ of course, is purely rhetorical: I’m a professor on a non-teaching term, who on earth is there to call who would care? What I mean to say is this: I’m not going to do any work until I feel better, or at least, considerably less terrible than I feel now.

I have, in the past, appalled family and colleagues by dragging myself into work with a cough to rattle the doors in their frames, a pallor to make Robert Pattinson look tan, and a voice like Paul Robeson. (I’d like to keep the voice.) Why go in? Why spread my germs around, a martyr to a futile cause? Who can participated in a meeting, let alone teach, grade, or, Heaven Forfend! attempt research with a blazing sinus infection / the flu / walking pneumonia.

No one.

It could be a newfound maturity, or maybe it’s just exhaustion, but I think the academy can get along fine without my email replies for a day or two, or even three if this flu is as bad as everyone says. My research is not going to advance any for my fevered mistyped rantings on social media and autobiography, less still by my pitiful attempts at holding up a printout to read.

Who said I was so indispensable to … The Institution or The Life Of The Mind that I have to pretend to work when I am clearly not fit?

No one.

And yet, I’m sure I’m not the only one to ‘work’ while sick, or to feel awful for cancelling a class to hallucinate at home. Where did we all pick that up?

Forget it. From now on, when I’m sick, I’m sick, and I’m not getting out of my bathrobe until I’m well, or until it starts to smell too bad, or until I drop a glob of jam in the sleeve (okay, that last one happened today, and to be honest, I’m not ready to get out of the bathrobe yet).


heavy-handed metaphors · january blues

Snowed under

There is only one thing on everybody’s mind here in Edmonton, and that’s the snow. It has snowed, and snowed and snowed and snowed and snowed and snowed, virtually nonstop since New Year’s. Half a metre in the last ten days, more snow in 24 hours that we got in all of [name your month]: all it does is snow. As snow goes, it’s beautiful – light and fluffy, not your east coast cement – but it is undeniably plentiful. Not only is it hard to keep on top of the (ever-diminishing) pathways to the door, but we’re increasingly running out of places to put the stuff we shovel. To clear a little here is to pile a little more over there, until boom: avalanche.

Am I the only one who feels like this is a heavy-handed metaphor? We’re snowed under outdoors and, chez Dr Zwicker at least, snowed under indoors. There is a tunnel on my desk to match the tunnels to my house. I remember the days of smooth clear surfaces with a kind of disbelief, the same sensation I have when I look at my ranks of capri pants and short-sleeved blouses (why…?). The new normal is that every day you shovel and shovel, and as the newly-shoveled backslides onto the newly-cleared, you realize that the only real solution for this state of affairs is to have started shoveling way, way back – in August, say, or June – when you knew a storm like this was inevitable and you could at least have read the book you have to review, or started that dissertation chapter, or, or, or…

The consolation is that everybody’s in the same straits, and if facebook can be believed (and, really, when can’t it?), there is a kind of pleasure in sharing this particular misery. Don’t think snowed under. Think snowed in.