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Morning Ritual (and a short aside on the Education Workers’ Strike)

I wake every morning before dawn–sometimes hours before dawn, especially in this dark season–and rise to perform the morning rituals. Sit on the toilet, greet the cats (this morning Milo was sleeping rather sweetly in the bathtub), read a few pages (currently Margaret Christakos’ book Her Paraphernalia, but at other times it might be a decor magazine, Erazim Kohak’s The Embers and the Stars or an old cookbook found in the little library down the street), refresh the water dishes and clean the litter box on the third floor, and descend to the second to do the same (later, my husband will deal with litter box on the ground floor, because hunting for nuggets in all three litter boxes first thing in the morning is beyond my tolerance). Feed the cats (really, there are only two of them, but they are very spoiled), put away last night’s dishes, wake our daughter, nag her again to get up, and then, twelve minutes later, make dire pronouncements about the time and remind her she cannot blame the subway for her lateness more than once a week.

[If luck is with me, there will be a moment to glance out at the dawn, and to glean the day’s weather from it. This morning’s dawn: clear, cool, the trees stark against the pale sky, peach fading into pale blue; finches at the feeder; a squirrel rustling in the nest it has built in the Juliet balcony outside the third floor front window—tolerated because it cannot do any structural damage and entertains the cats.]

See our daughter off to school, greet my husband, discuss morning schedules, help with caregiving downstairs (early in the pandemic we moved my mother-in-law into the ground floor of our home—fortunate to have dedicated space in our formerly apartmentized house—cleaned out and sold her condo, dealt with the difficult transition, began learning how to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth of Ontario’s eldercare system), walk the cats —

A year ago, at this point I would have disappeared into my office to organize a lecture, mark papers, respond to the deluge of student emails, deal with departmental bureaucracy, and, during the term last year when I ran an 8:30 Zoom class, teach for three hours before stopping to catch my breath and notice the patterns of light and shadow in the cedars.

A friend asked me recently what it is like to retire. I don’t really know, I said: it’s not as if things are any less busy.

And yet: the ceaseless stress, the tightness in my chest; the compounding urgencies; the roller-coaster of term; the steady string of heating or plumbing emergencies downtown—these I have almost forgotten to miss.

Our days are still very busy. Last week my husband had to take his mother to the hospital after a fall, and caregiving for someone with dementia is a 24/7 challenge; parenting our bright, creative, athletic, socially active kid is itself a full-time job; I still have publishing deadlines; we still have business affairs to attend to.

I have the project I’ve returned to, about which I will say little except that hopefully you will see it in print before too long.

And I have rowing, about more anon. Nearly every day, preferably in the morning, I go down to the basement to row for up to an hour (or sometimes, when I have foolishly committed to a half marathon, close to two). During the pandemic when the gyms were closed, we bought a Concept2 Rowerg, and it has been life-changing. After using the rower on and off for a year, I took seriously to rowing in March of this year, and in that time I’ve rowed well over a million metres, joined an international virtual team (which placed 59th out of 746 teams in the Fall Team Challenge and 8th out of 167 teams in our size category), rowed two half marathons, and lost 30 pounds. I work hard at rowing, and my top ranked workouts are in the 80th percentile in my category (not the half marathon, though, where I’m ranked 29th out of 76 bad fifty-something bitches who also like to row hard core).

Yesterday morning I rowed for an hour (while watching Man on the Moon), and then went out to put the gardens to bed. I didn’t finish everything before dark, but did manage to get the Hallowe’en decorations packed carefully away, put pumpkins into the compost, raked leaves, swept the front porch, put the hoses away, brought out the (shudder) snow shovels, and emptied the rain barrel. Today I hope to finish raking and sweeping, plant next year’s garlic, empty planters, and tuck the gardening décor and equipment carefully away in the garage.

Complicating today’s plans is the Education Workers’ labour action, a volatile situation that has closed schools in the Toronto District School Board and left students doing so-called asynchronous learning, with uncertainty about whether, when and how learning will resume later this week. This morning my daughter is finishing off some assignments and a couple of art pieces, while we keep checking the news for updates.

A Short Aside on the Education Workers’ Strike

My own view about the situation? In summary: (1) I believe in the principles that govern trade unionism and wholly support the collective bargaining process laid out in the Ontario Labour Relations Act. (2) I had some issues with OSBCU (Ontario School Board Council of Unions, representing over 50,000 Ontario education workers, including administrative and custodial staff, educational assistants, early childhood educators, and library technicians)’s approach to bargaining, namely the significant wage demands (yes, declining real wages and yes, inflation, but tell that to private sector workers earning minimum wage) and what seemed, from the outside, as its brinkmanship approach to conciliation and the strike vote process (the Province’s subsequent moves make OSBCU’s approach a lot more understandable). To be clear, I support the Union’s aims, but have found some of its moves seemed (again, from the outside) tone-deaf and short-sighted. (3) At the same time, nothing could be more tone-deaf than the Province pushing through legislation last week to impose a collective agreement and declare any OSBCU labour action ‘illegal’–ordinarily this would itself be an illegal act, given that labour rights are Constitutionally protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the government has indicated it will invoke the Notwithstanding Clause, which it appears to see as offering it a free pass from democratic accountability.

I see this not only as an idiotic move on the part of the Provincial government, but also as an authoritarian, deeply undemocratic action. Not only does it abrogate the statutory basis of labour relations in Ontario, it directly undermines the democratic process in Canada. Worse still, it wasn’t even necessary. The Province could have waited a few days and easily passed back to work legislation that would have sent unresolved contract issues to binding arbitration. Premier Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce could have presented themselves as heroes standing up for public education, and the Notwithstanding Clause could have been kept in its box. Instead, most Ontarians blame Ford for the debacle, and labour advocates are now calling for a general strike.

Already this morning I see evidence the Premier might be backing down, and ‘walking back’ his threat to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause. If this actually happens, labour advocates will claim it was the threat of a general strike that did it, but it is almost certain that constitutional law experts within his own party have told Ford to back the eff down unless he wants to spend the rest of his term in office fighting a myriad of constitutional issues all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In the meantime, however this travesty ends, it will mean that public support for the Ford government (returned to office in June 2022 with a stronger majority than it initially secured in 2017) will be deeply and likely irretrievably eroded, that public sector unions will be further on edge, that families with children in school will have terminally lost faith in the Province, and that the Notwithstanding Clause–even if not invoked this time–will have been firmly and disastrously let out of its Pandora’s Box. The winners: public sector education unions, who will be able to assert, somewhat accurately, that they are standing up not only for public education but also basic labour rights.

As my mother would say: Oh, the unmitigated idiocy of it all.

And Now For Something Completely Different

 

Well. At least it is a gorgeous November day. My pineapple sage are blooming, and with some luck I will be able to plant the garlic. The garlic are the last thing I plant every fall, in faith that spring will come and things will bloom again.

[Note: I’ve posted an update and a few more thoughts in the next post.]

Summer’s End

On Friday we made the longish drive from Toronto to Cardiff ON to pick up our daughter from summer camp. After having missed out on so many ordinary things during the pandemic — months of in-person school, over a year of swim training, art classes, time with friends — she was eager to return to Camp Can-Aqua for another summer. In 2020, like all sleepaway camps in Ontario, her camp was closed, but this year it reopened with pandemic-era protocols, a welcome return to normalcy for campers.

All the way up highway 28 we breathed in the sweet smells of late summer: the aromatic air of hemlock and pine forests; the cool fresh water of trout streams. Near Burleigh Falls the Canadian Shield announced itself in the form of rock cuts rich with spectacular granitic and gneissic intrusions, a striking contrast to the slow spirals of hawks and the steady drone of cars on the highway.

On the way up the road there were also a few suggestions of the approaching fall: maples showing just a hint of colour; crickets loud in the tall dry grass. A row of aspens, their leaves in continual motion, whispering like running water or the onrushing currents of a storm.

In a cloud of dust we pulled up the graded gravel road into camp and waited, part of a long line of cars in the cool dusk of the woods, before emerging into the bright sunlight of the camp, and then it was all happy reunions, final farewells, a last look at the lake, and then off for the long drive back home, through forest and lake, then farmland and, finally, suburb and city. In the car our daughter told us stories about camp. Cabin hijinks. Canoe trips. A fish that ate a frog. Diving off the high board. Canoe swampings, waterskiing mishaps, lake muck, counsellor romances. After an hour of excited storytelling she drifted off and slept until we had nearly reached the city, awakening disoriented somewhere on the 401, still on Haliburton time.

Some parents send their kids to the same camps they went to because it is (or they hope it will become) family tradition to do so. I didn’t go to camp as a child (although I have treasured memories of family trips to provincial parks when I was very young). My husband (whose forbears went to very different kinds of camps) spent his childhood being displaced from continent to continent before, as a new Canadian, getting to know the country by spending his adolescent summers attending wilderness canoe camp. By sending our child to a classic Canadian summer camp, we made a very conscious decision to give her something we never had.

Our daughter takes going to camp for granted. She is grateful, of course, in the way all good kids are grateful, but has no context for the alternative. Her life is about openings and opportunities, a perpetual present lit brightly by plans for the near future: fun with friends, schoolwork, swim meets, adding to her art portfolio, booking cat-sitting gigs, learning to skateboard. Today, still only half unpacked from camp, she has taken the subway downtown with friends to go back-to-school shopping.

All the pent-up feelings of nostalgia are mine. Watching country roads unspool in the rearview mirror, the trees recede, all those lakes vanishing into their thickets. The sun’s azimuth a little lower each day; summer fruit hanging heavy in the trees, propelling me to dig out the canner to preserve in jars as much of the summer as possible. Downloading all the photos shared by my daughter’s camp: all those cabins, canoes, cliffs; the loons; woodsmoke; lake water.

Looking at these pictures makes me feel so much longing: for these summers to never end; for my daughter’s future to remain brightly lit; for my dead mother to be able to see her beautiful granddaughter, so long and so graceful, so much like her, even down to the curve of her eyebrows and the roguish gleam in her wicked grin.

Amid the jumble of clothes tangled in my daughter’s duffle bags are souvenirs from camp. Camp crafts, skills badges, interesting rocks, a clay shooting target retrieved from the bottom of the lake, drawings from friends, notes. Her camp walking stick, bark peeled back to expose the pale pine cambium. After sorting all the laundry and finding homes for her camp treasures we take the duffle bag outside and turn it over, grit and bits of leaves falling out, tumbling over the side of the front porch, spangled in the golden light of summer’s end.

Still City; Resolve

The first day of the year, and light returns to the hemisphere. Early this morning I left the house, and moved through the nearly silent city on my way to the gym. Below the balustrades pigeons flapped like bellows, and sparks jolted down from the streetcar wire and guttered in the intersection, and smoke rose from grates and chimneys, and the city glowed like a banked fire against the pink and pewter dawn.

Years ago I used to make new year’s resolutions: in my twenties they focused on weight loss and grad school; by my thirties they revolved around research projects and, one memorable year, getting and staying pregnant (and, you know, giving birth). And then, since my forties began, I have been too busy for boot-strapping, and the new year is mainly a somnolent moment between teaching terms and publishing commitments. But this year I have taken a sabbatical, and have the sort of time for personal projects I have not enjoyed for years.

Like many academics, for me the ‘real’ beginning of the year is in September when the teaching term starts, and this was when my sabbatical began, so by chronological measure I have gotten a bit of a head start on certain things. But a new year is a new year, and so I will post herewith a haphazard inventory of my 2020 resolutions.

Smoke on the Water

Early last August, after years of talking about doing so, we finally bought kayaks, and put them to very good use through the end of the season, paddling the navigable stretches of the Humber River and on Lake Ontario as far west as Samuel Smith Park.

In 2020 we plan to take the kayaks with us camping, and have a few lakes in mind we’d like to explore. We also hope to spend much more time on the water at Toronto, perhaps paddling to Hanlan’s Point and revisiting some favoured beaches and inlets along the shores west of the city.

Shaking My Jelly I

Last summer was the second year of what I anticipate (and hope) will be a long apprenticeship as a maker of amateur preserves. Last fall I entered a batch of lemon verbena jelly in the preserves competition run annually by the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, and it won first prize!

In 2020 I would like to make more more jams and jellies, improve my techniques, and perhaps try other preserves, like pickles. I am very interested in garden-grown and wild-picked foods (I grew the lemon verbena used in my prize winning (!!) jelly on our front balcony, and experimented with mulberry jam, and sumac, crabapple and wild apple jellies picked from street trees), and would like to expand my repertoire, perhaps to include rose hips (tried and failed last fall) and rowan berries.

Shaking My Jelly II

In November we joined a gym: the West End YMCA. I know! I never thought I’d join a gym either. But even after 45 years in Canada, winters are hard on my husband, and I have to admit they’ve lost some of their charm for me. We figured that joining a gym might stave off some of the inevitable winter erosions to health and well-being, and so far it’s working.

By good fortune, on the day we went to sign up, the Heart & Stroke Foundation had set up a table advertising their Activate program, offering two months of free membership at participating YMCA locations, a free session with a personal trainer, and wellness coaching for six months. My husband qualified because he is a cardiac survivor, and my historically low blood pressure and, ahem, weight have increased after years of unremitting overwork and periods of extreme stress, so I qualified as well.

As noted elsewhere, even five weeks of regular gym-going (we go together at least twice a week, and I almost always go three times) has been transformative. I’ve lost weight and gained strength, of course. But more pointedly: I feel good. My resolution this year is to continue going three times a week and to make further progress with a balanced program of cardio (I run! Or did until I strained my left MCL a week ago; now I use the elliptical) and strength training. I’d also like to try some of the classes, all of which look like fun with all the slogan-shouting and deafening music and uncurbed enthusiasm.

Shaking the Dust

Three years ago, when my beautiful mother was dying, we talked quite a lot about forgiveness. One of the many things we had in common was having borne the brunt of certain kinds of family dysfunction. Over the years we had made parallel accommodations to it, but mine was harder-edged. She had forgiven (or had at least tried to understand), while I had, at long last, said no.

Our discussions were an interesting inversion of the somewhat parallel conversations we had years earlier, after my father’s death. My father was a powerful, arrogant, larger-than-life person who was, at times, a terrible person to live with. But in the later years of his life he exhibited a startling, real and I think very rare awareness of the effects his disposition and choices had on the people in his life. He regretted the damage. And for me this was enough. But for my mother–who loved my father but also endured him at times–forgiveness was difficult and incomplete.

My mother was able to forgive dysfunction involving other family members because she saw these dysfunctions, in part, as consequences of my father’s disposition and behaviour, even after decades had passed.

I could not.

While my mother remained at home, I provided nearly all of her care, and after she died, I alone sorted her possessions and packed up her large, cluttered house. I kept silent about many things: much of my silence was at her request. I have maintained that silence. At some point I began to think of silence as the closest to forgiveness I am likely to get.

Until sometime last year that silence was a weight I carried. I had been carrying it for years–for years and years–but after my mother’s death certain things happened to make that silence heavier. In recent months I have taken steps to lighten that burden, and in 2020, my resolution is to set it aside entirely.

Purging

A few weeks ago, for the first time, I made shelf space for my own published work, rather than hiding it in various files or dispersing it among the books in my library. Then I cleared some shelf space for the books I love most, which have also been dispersed among various sections in my library. And then I cleared shelf space for research materials associated with current projects. And then I donated a ton of books I will not read again and do not care to retain. So cathartic! In 2020 I hope to expand this process vastly.

Projects

I have two important projects on the go, and in 2020 I am hoping to finish one of them and set the other one into meaningful motion. More soon.

People

I am considering–considering–being more social in 2020. I might–might–even go out voluntarily at night.

Endless Summer

This morning’s forecast–one last sultry, sunny day before fall weather descends–was enough reason to drop everything, toss our kayaks on the car, and spend a day on the water.

We put in at Humber Bay Park West and paddled west about 5 km to Samuel Smith Park. The sun beamed down; the breeze was mild; the lake warm, the swells gentle. We had a picnic and watched the downtown towers glitter, 15 km away. Paragliders rose and descended in the middle distance. Dogs dragged driftwood along the beach. Endless Summer, for one more day.

We surfed the swells all the way back, the lake just beginning to roil. The haze closed in; thunderheads loomed behind us. In the parking lot crickets were abuzz with the news: a storm, oncoming. Endless summer, for one more hour.

We made it home before the rain, and made pizza for dinner, savoring our sore shoulders and October sunburns.

Endless summer, one

more

day.

A Read of The Girl’s Own Annual (1907-1908) and an Inadvertent Critique of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (2016).

At the 2018 University College book sale I bought this 1907-1908 volume of The Girl’s Own Annual, a bound compilation of the preceding year’s weekly issues of The Girl’s Own Paper.

The Girl’s Own Paper was a weekly and, later, monthly, publication produced between 1880 and 1956 for older girls and young women. Its founder and first editor, Charles Peters, is described as having sought “to foster and develop that which was highest and noblest in the girlhood and womanhood of England.” After Peters’ death late in 1907 (an In Memoriam is printed in the 25 January 1908 edition of the Paper); his successor, Flora Klickmann, saw the Paper through the First World War and the important social changes that followed, including women’s suffrage. Scholarly work on The Girl’s Own Paper notes that Klickmann’s editorial influence became apparent early on, especially in the form of an increasing (if somewhat ambivalent) emphasis on the changing roles of women in the early decades of the twentieth century.

At the same time, even under Peters’ directorship (at least in the volume I have), women, their lives, well-being, interests and work are valorized in ways that seem to go beyond commonly received late- and post-Victorian notions of the proper place of women. I found it both a surprise and delight, for example, to discover an article titled “How to Become a Lady Librarian” in a 1908 issue of the paper. The article notes the scarcity of training and opportunities for women librarians in England, and laments that even well trained women “have been unable to find employment at the same rate of payment as men.” It goes on to indicate the proper rates of pay women librarians may reasonably expect, and makes suggestions about where to obtain training, including at the London School of Economics. At its close, the article lists “public libraries controlled by women,” among them Manchester College at Oxford.

“How to Become a Lady Librarian” is far from the only article offering career advice. “A New Employment for Women” offers recommendations on obtaining training and suitable employment for teaching hearing impaired children. It also indicates the salary range a qualified teacher may expect to be paid. Another article, “A Strange College for Women Workers,” describes bee farming in detail, including set-up costs, and observes, “[i]t would take more nerve than the average “mere man” possesses to allow from 25,000 to 30,000 bees to roost on his bare arm and make themselves at home; any yet, at the Luton Bee College, women students think nothing of this performance.” “How I Became a Lady Doctor” describes one woman’s progress into the profession; in it the author, Doctor Penelope Smith, concludes that the greatest difficulty facing qualified women doctors is not ability but unequal access to hospital experience: “To gain a wide experience hospital practice is absolutely necessary,” she writes, “and it is in the deficiency of opportunities for this practice that women are placed at a disadvantage as compared with men; not in the training, nor in their capabilities for mastering the details of their profession.” An essay on portraitist and illustrator Marcella Walker describes her work (exhibited at the Royal Academy, reviewed in the Academy Review and published in the Illustrated London News) as a rebuttal to those who “assert that women have no originality, and merely follow and copy men in art.”

Swatting at much more than a tennis ball.

The volume is still, of course, evocative of its era. Young women are urged to take care of their skin, lest it become reddened and wrinkled with work. Readers are invited to participate in physical activity, but (horrors) not in any way that might masculinize them. An otherwise charming illustration of a woman playing field hockey, for example, has the admonition captioned to it: “Avoid all excess in the field games which are suitable only to sporting men.” Every woman pictured is white (although The Girl’s Own Paper was circulated throughout the Empire), in good health, and visibly representative of her upper class (or upper class-aspiring) upbringing. The amassing of a “White Trousseau” receives treatment in a number of issues, as does an ongoing series called “How a Girl Should Dress” (properly, with full skirts and gloves and enormous hats; restrictive, and yet: how I long to have at least one similar costume).

While browsing the Annual, I have felt wistful for two reasons. The first is that my mother would have loved it. We shared a fascination with the sometimes ephemeral traces of everyday life found in old newspapers, letters, paper crafts and magazines, and would spend hours poring over all these sorts of documents whenever they came to light. This Annual is one of the richest such resources I have encountered in years, and I wish so much that we could share it. She would have loved the quirky essays (and their quirky titles), like “Methods of Travelling Used by Women from Early Times Down to the Present,” “Fire-Lighting Without Sticks,” “Insects Mentioned in Shakespeare,” “Familiar British Seaweeds,” and perhaps especially, “Book-Binding for Girls.”

The second reason I feel wistful while reading the Girl’s Own Paper is because, despite its implicit snobbery and adherence to vastly outdated conventions, there is also something empowering in the articles and stories in its pages. Women, it says repeatedly and in many different ways, have value. Women’s pursuits and work have worth, whether they involve sewing, cooking, writing, playing music or caring for others–or pursuing higher education and working in demanding fields. An older girl or young woman reading its pages would have reason to feel encouraged, not only by the things articles suggested she could do if she chose, but by the histories of other women who have done them, too.

Annuals featuring improving stories for girls have fallen mostly out of favour, even in the United Kingdom where they could once make a publisher’s year, but some months ago I received a copy of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Penguin Random House, 2016) to give to my daughter. The book was received with wild enthusiasm by reviewers, spurring a sequel, but in our household it was met with a muted “meh.” The book is subtitled “100 Tales of Extraordinary Women,” and this, I think, is at the heart of the book’s problem. It is not that the women profiled are not extraordinary, and it is not as if this kind of book is not desperately needed: it is.

But even its dedication makes demands of its young readers: to be rebels, first of all. And immediately afterward, it suggests that the things girls do already are not enough: they must “dream bigger, aim higher, fight harder,” and live with the conviction that they are “right.” Most of the women profiled in Rebel Girls are wonderfully chosen, and I do love the profile of American Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But the narratives return, over and over again, to how extraordinary they were or are, and how unusual their accomplishments. Very few of the narratives directly invite the reader to consider herself capable of doing the same kinds of things. Sadly but perhaps revealingly, one of the few stories that does so is the one about Virginia Woolf, which discusses her depression and acknowledges the possibility that even rebel girls might sometimes be sad. Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek is quoted as saying, “You are beautiful. It’s okay to be quirky. It’s fine to be shy,” — but her important message seems to be drowned out by so many injunctions in the other stories for girls to be aggressive, competitive and attention-seeking. After 200 pages of superlatives, the reader is, at last, invited to “write your story,” but it seems to me that by this time, after so many pages of genius, originality and victory, especially those in which systemic barriers to women’s flourishing are subsumed beneath narratives of individual strength, more than a few readers might feel deflated. I certainly did, and I am an exceedingly determined person who has been standing for something for nearly three decades. My daughter liked the book, but found the stories hard to relate to.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls reminds me of the response to the 2016 all-woman remake of the popular 1980s film Ghostbusters. Although the remake was fun to watch, it was essentially mediocre; basically on par with most remakes, and slightly better than a typical sequel. But public response tended to be sharply divided between those (whose testicles seemed to shrivel at the sight of a woman wielding a proton pack) who insisted it was the Worst Film Ever, and those (mostly women) who insisted upon its virtues. It seemed impossible for anyone to simply say out loud that it was a fun but essentially mediocre remake–because women in film, like women in public life, cannot afford to be mediocre.

In this context, the overwrought exhortations of “extraordinary” women’s greatness in Rebel Girls seem to me to undermine the book’s very good intentions. Indeed, ultimately the book’s message seems somehow indistinguishable from diet and ‘wellness’ marketing campaigns exhorting girls and women to be ever thinner, sexier, more feminine–and ever more obedient to always arbitrary, always external injunctions about how they must look and live. It seems to me, especially in the era of the ‘crisis of the mediocre man,’ that women should not always have to overcome the social (and political and economic) deficit of being women in a sexist society by being deemed geniuses, heroes, winners or leaders. Very good women actors should be able to star in mediocre films. Ordinary girls and women should be counted, too, whether they are ‘rebel girls’ or not.

This is something, oddly enough, that The Girl’s Own Paper seems to have gotten right more than a century ago. Despite its conventionality and essential conservatism, its pages reinforce the perspective that every girl, and every woman–not only those deemed “extraordinary”–is special and has worth, and that every girl and every woman has the capacity to stand up for herself, and for others, and has the right to contribute to both private and public life and to make herself heard in both worlds.

I suppose I am hopeful that the Rebel Girls franchise will eventually get to the point of unpacking some of the contradictions in its narratives. On the way, its authors could do worse than read a century-old volume or two of The Girl’s Own Annual.