The Bear Necessities

  • S. Bear Bergman (Author) and Saul Freedman-Lawson (Illustrator)
    Special Topics in Being a Human: A Queer and Tender Guide to Things I’ve Learned the Hard Way about Caring for People, Including Myself. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lauren Chochinov

In Special Topics in Being a Human, S. Bear Bergman, a self-described writer, storyteller, and advocate, imparts wisdom based on his advice column, “Asking Bear.” As Bergman explains in the book’s introduction, “to be afraid and uncertain is deeply human and . . . reaching out for some validation and assistance is an act of belief in oneself, and an act of courage” (p.#?). Bergman’s advice is thoughtful, often poignant, and heavily focused on connectivity and reflection. Each topic is a heavy hitter, from “How to Apologize (Properly, Not like a Republican Congressman)” to “How to Keep Going When You Just Want More than Anything to Stop, for G-d’s Sake.” Special Topics in Being a Human is not interested in life’s minor annoyances. Bergman tackles big, often essential questions that require both empathy and wisdom.

 

Advice is subjective, but Bergman finds the universality in life’s challenges and provides answers in the form of step-by-step instructions for navigating relationships, disappointments, a variety of feelings both pleasant and unpleasant, and queer/gender advocacy. Bergman has an awareness of the complex nature of problems—how they can be simultaneously ubiquitous and unique. Yet each chapter acknowledges and mines that duality to create attainable solutions.

 

As in a cookbook that relies entirely on pantry staples, Bergman never asks readers to reach for the impossible. Each step towards resolution involves community—family, friends, co-workers, or neighbours. Bergman imagines a world where his readers must reach within and without in order to come to a greater sense of serenity or understanding. Alongside advice come warnings wherein Bergman cautions against certain types of people (avoid “yes men”) or psychological traps (rest is good!). He acknowledges that problems are rarely black and white and that adaptability is necessary.

 

While most of the advice pertains to negotiating complex emotions and interpersonal relationships, the book also includes sections that highlight Bergman’s advocacy. The chapter “How to Get Someone’s New Name and/or Pronouns Right, Every Time, Sooner than You Think,” for example, guarantees success within six months of practising Bergman’s three-part instructions that emphasize accountability.

 

Illustrations by Saul Freedman-Lawson punctuate each chapter, creating a visually appealing and easily readable text that never feels as if it’s preaching. Each chapter is visually intelligent—the images not only support the text but create layout divisions that prevent the advice from feeling too dense or complex. Freedman-Lawson’s work is subtle and helps depict some of Bergman’s more flowery words of wisdom. “Put your ex in the freezer of your heart” (p.#?) is, of course, illustrated with images of a walk-in freezer, which works to ground the potentially abstract metaphor.

 

Bergman’s tone is conversational and personal; he refers to his reader as “my friend,” and his obvious kindness and empathy pervade each chapter. He presents each problem not as an individual failure but instead as an acknowledgement that to be human is an often difficult and confusing affliction. Partly a self-help guide, partly an opportunity to impart wisdom, Special Topics in Being a Human concludes that there are no simple answers to life’s most difficult questions, but that asking for help—or reading the book—is a crucial first step towards clarity.



This review “The Bear Necessities” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 23 Aug. 2022. Web.

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