Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Outsides: Bespoke (Glamour was earlier)

AsI said last time, I’ve been away for a short vacation. On the way home, two issues of Glamour magazine kept me company. Long story short: I used to subscribe but stopped, and I didn’t realize how much I had missed it until that day of travel.

Then when I got home, I dove back into reading books, and had a similar experience—I got to learn about something I wouldn’t have predicted I’d be interested in. The book in question: The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, A Son, and a Suit, by JJ Lee.

(Aside: as I’ve mentioned, I am doing this project in which I’m reading all the books we have before buying more. Book club books, and books I am reading for a specific project, are exempt. Which is how I justified reading this one. JJ Lee judged a contest I helped administer, and I had seen an excerpt of his book in a magazine but hadn’t read it. So I finally did.)

Which brings us to the concept of “bespoke”: Someone measures you and creates a suit pattern (and later a suit from that pattern, from cloth that is YOURS) for YOUR body, with all its unique qualities. The pattern isn’t altered from existing forms. Roughly, the bespoke suit is the male equivalent of haute couture in female fashion. Waaay out of my experience, in other words.

In his book, Lee weaves together several threads (haha, sorry):

* A memoir of his youth and adolescence in a turbulent household with an alcoholic father, which encompasses some of the ambivalence the children of immigrants feel toward their parents
* The story of one of his father’s suits, which he wants to alter in some way to make it his own
* A fair amount of the history of men’s fashion (fascinating)
* The story of his own apprenticeship to tailors to help him learn what he needs to know (skills and emotionally) to alter the suit

It’s masterfully done, and Lee’s voice and self-deprecating honesty make him a cheerful companion.

Here’s my favourite quote:
I still believe fashion matters. It matters to people not because they care about what someone in Paris or New York has to say about what they should wear next season, nor because they think what models and Hollywood starlets wear is vital to their happiness. Fashion matters because every day people get up in the morning and, with the palette of clothes they find in their closets and dressers, they attempt to create a visual poem about a part of themselves they wish to share with the world.

I love the idea of a “visual poem” and also the idea of choosing to share part of one’s self.

We all present faces to the world. Some of us have bigger closets and dressers than others. We use different rules of thumb to guide our decisions—comfort (texture, temperature, fit), obedience, decorum, proximity, cleanliness, colour, shock value, uniformity, plain old availability—sometimes choosing different effects on different days. What we present can be close to who we are (or who we think we are), or it can be completely at odds with the person we consider to be who we really are.

I tend to forget about physical appearance. I work and write from home, and our house is in the country. In winter months, I can go several days—sometimes a week or more—without seeing a single human being I’m not married to.

But it’s (finally) spring. I’ll be out among people more often. I’ll be visible; I’ll be interacting more often. It’s good to be reminded of the physical and symbolic purposes of clothing. And a bonus that it was such a pleasant experience.

Well done, JJ Lee. Thank you for sharing your story.
Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Outsides: Glamour (and, later, Bespoke)

Glamour as in the magazine.

I'm just back from a short time away, and I had the opportunity to read two issues of Glamour on two airplanes. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't be so generous--I wouldn't leave the issue with the Lena Dunham cover(s) for another lucky passenger. Yep. I'd keep it. I'd hoard it. (Eventually I'd send it to recycle, and I know that, so that's more or less why I left it.)

My sister gave me the issues of the magazine; she'd received them as a promotional incentive for something-or-other. I wouldn't have bought them myself; it would never have occurred to me. I'm completely out of the habit of browsing magazine racks. But ye gods, what a serendipitous find they were!

See, Glamour and I go way back. It kept me company from my mid-high school years through my mid-30s or so. I loved it for SO many reasons:

* For giving me a glimpse into an idealized version of urban life, chock-full of freelancers, public relations specialists, nonprofit administrators, and financial managers.

* For smart essays--by which I mean "a reliably feminist voice," not an easy find in the middle of the country--on political issues of the day.

* For advice columns about working, including where, why, doing what, what you'd be wearing, and how to change your skills or your situation if you don't like it. How to ask for a raise. How to find out what other people in your job are making. That "professional organizations" even exist, and even why you should belong to them.

And other reasons: For profiles of women who are exceptional. For the information that some people consider $100 a reasonable price to pay for jeans. And, of course, for the Glamour Don't.

I outgrew it. In today-speak, it ceased to resonate with me. But time has passed. ("Children get older, and I'm gettin' older too....") The magazine today is different, of course--different features, different discussions, different price points on cosmetics. Still, the Glamour personality remains upbeat yet serious--smart and challenging and approachable. Leafing through its pages was like having a conversation with a young woman you used to babysit but haven't seen in years, and being delighted at her wit, poise, intelligence, and humor.

Oh Glamour, I missed you. You were a great seatmate on this trip. Thanks so much, and I'll be in touch: I have one more issue to read and I'm saving it for a time when I need to be reminded of my past and cheered up about the future.

Next time: Bespoke. Yes, as in fashion and tailoring.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tre: What I learned from reading a copy of The New Yorker every day (except weekends) during Lent in 2014

Part1: Why I did it.

Part2: A few lessons from the process.

Part 3. Would I do it again?


I enjoyed the feeling of learning something. Reading some of these articles is like going to a dinner party and getting into the BEST conversation. Someone else has done a bunch of research and you get the most interesting tidbits. Other people’s enthusiasm is catching. This world is a fascinating place.

I enjoyed getting through a bunch of back issues—a diminishing To Be Read pile; a growing Recycle pile. When many of your activities recur often (dishes, laundry, meals) and the important stuff feels as if moves at a glacial pace, (essays, stories), it’s nice to be doing something with visible progress.


The time I spent reading books (for pleasure) fell off drastically during this time. I’m in a couple of book clubs, so I made time to read those books (which is why I had to catch up a little on the magazines nearly every weekend). But I didn’t read other than that during those six weeks. I missed it. I like short stories, but I like a good novel, and I have several of those in my To-Be-Read pile, too.

I read a lot as part of my work, especially lately. I’m in a research-intensive time for one project, plus I have several revisions on the go, which require reading and mulling and rewriting. I enjoy reading, but sometimes at the end of the day I really didn’t want to spend time with some other writer’s words.

Bottom Line: Maybe. 

But I’d recommend this project or something similar as an exercise in discipline. And I like the feeling of working on a project. And hey, May is Short Story Month in some parts of the continent. Hmm, is that a new project?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Deux: What I learned from reading a copy of The New Yorker every day (except weekends) during Lent in 2014

Part 2: How I defined “read” and other lessons of content.

Last time I wrote a little about a project I finished during Lent this year: reading an issue of The New Yorker every weekday. Here’s a follow-up.

By way of defining the term “read,” I’ll be honest: I didn’t read every word. I knew it wouldn’t make sense to commit to reading every single word of every issue. So I went in with some expectations around what I would and would not read.

At the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld and his known/unknown knowns/unknowns, here’s how that shook out.

Some pieces I knew I’d read, and I did. For example, I read all the short stories (though I didn’t enjoy them all). The fiction is, after all, one of the main reasons I get the magazine in the first place. And then I knew I’d also read articles about writing, especially anything by John McPhee. In fact, anything by John McPhee, regardless of topic.

Some pieces I knew I would NOT read, and I didn’t. I skipped nearly everything about politics in the issues from 2005 and 2006. I skipped much about US healthcare reform (hooray for Canada), coverage of the New York mayoral races (I don’t live there), restaurant/movie/show reviews (ditto). Yes, all the tiny print stuff in the front.

Some pieces I that I thought I MIGHT read, and I did. I know my own tastes and could predict the kinds of things I would find interesting: Profiles of many politicians, judges, and writers; of drugs and drug companies; of physicians and scientists and mysterious diseases. Even, or especially, people I’d never heard of: fashion designers, chefs, and other artists. Reviews of books—the short ones especially, but nearly all of the longer ones, too.

And then I developed favorite writers. To “the writer for The New Yorker that everyone in Canada has heard of,” Malcolm Gladwell, and “the writer for the New Yorker that everyone in Oklahoma pretends to have known in high school,” Burkhardt Bilger, I added some other names: off the top of my head, Ryan Lizza, Adam Gopnik, Jill Lepore. I was already a fan of Atul Gawande’s insight into healthcare (a notable exception to my previous list of subject-matter exceptions) and the benefits of checklists and coaching. I will always at least attempt to read what these people have to say about topics they find interesting.

Some pieces I thought I would NOT read, and didn’t. I have a hard time working up energy for pieces on crime, crime bosses, gambling, and talented addicted people who are attempting comeback. Also, I yawn over analyses of “today’s media landscape” or “publishing”; I’m not that interested in bugs and snakes. To my shame, I have a limited capacity to read about active wars, though I did attempt to read more of these articles than I thought I would. And I tend to steer away from “profile of life/literature in [country with a description that includes the words “former Soviet,” “war torn,” “in the wake of,” or “massacre”].” Some of these limits I feel worse about than others. Some of these limits I tried harder to overcome than others—but I went in knowing I wouldn’t read all of these pieces.

And finally, one of the main reasons to read The New Yorker: pieces I didn’t think I’d read but I did, and with complete enjoyment. In a couple of cases, they were articles that later became books; I read some excerpts or reviews of books that are on my “to buy” list. Sometimes, I overcame an antipathy or ignorance (such as never having seen “Breaking Bad”) to read an actor profile. I asked myself, “What could there be to say about panda reproduction?” and found the answer: Lots of fascinating stuff, turns out. Did you know that death certificates were, in a sense, invented? Me neither. A company in China is doing work on the human genome under some slightly different ethical assumptions than those prevalent in the U.S., you might (not) be interested to know.

One of the side benefits was the in-depth exposure to ways people structure their articles. Always beneficial to see how they’re done well (which is why I’m also a fan of Nieman Storyboard and their “Why is this so good?” feature).

Would I do it again? Hmmm. I’ll get back to you.

And I should make this plain: This reading project wasn't the equivalent of a religious or spiritual discipline. I don't mean to make light of those who find meaning in Lenten sacrifice or spiritual learning, or of their practices. I'm just sharing what I did and why, and its value.