5.21.2015

this year's garden-ette


This year's crop: two tomato plants, basil, beans, and strawberries. Beans and strawberries are both new for us. 

I love that we're still planting our little garden, with no thought to expansion, just trying a couple of new things each year. And since we should all be boycotting Driscoll's, we are growing resistance berries. ¡Si, Se Puede!

Plus, bonus Tala, with her favourite Orbee.


why are ontario public school teachers on strike?

Public school teachers in our area are on strike, part of a series of rolling strikes hitting different regions throughout Ontario. If the province doesn't back down before the beginning of the school year in September, we can expect all Ontario public school teachers to strike.

The roots of this struggle stretch back to 2012, when the provincial government stripped teachers of their right to collective bargaining, unilaterally imposed a contract, then repealed the law taking away their union rights.

My partner and I spoke with some striking teachers last week, and this is what they told us.
...Before we went on strike, we weren’t allowed to negotiate. Our contract finished in August of 2014, and before we announced we were going on strike, the Boards actually met with our union for four days. And they were short meetings. Nothing much was accomplished. As soon as we announced that we were going on strike, and we gave our legal notice, they were negotiating every day.

We still didn’t accomplish as much as we had hoped, we are still on very different sides in terms of reaching an agreement, but striking at least brought us to the table and convinced the Board to actually talk with us. That’s a big deal. In 2012, our contract was imposed on us. There was no negotiation, there was no care or thought for what is best for the students, what is best for the teachers. That was under the McGuinty government.

Kathleen Wynne has said she is not going to take those measures, but at the same time, the open communication and negotiation just hasn’t been happening throughout the year. So our Peel OSSTF felt that this was the only way to actually move forward. And it has been positive in terms of bringing out our issues, and getting bargaining days.

There are also lots local issues that we are concerned about. Things like the amount of support for our special ed students. Control over the school day – right now, the board is proposing that principals have the authority to dictate every minute of the teacher’s day, what they do during their prep periods, what they do after school. That’s really hard for teachers. We’ve always worked really hard to provide the best that we can for our students, giving help during lunch, giving help after school, managing our own days around the students' needs. To have that taken away, or to have that even questioned - that we’re not using our time effectively - it’s really hurtful.

[What would they impose on you?]

It could be mandatory professional days. It could be something like, 'Everyone who has fourth period lunch today, you’re going to the library and you’re going to learn about some new assessment policy that we want to put into place.' And so now teachers don’t have time to prep their lessons, to do their marking, to do all the stuff they need to do to be good teachers. So many of us are involved in so many voluntary things throughout the school. We’re coaching teams, we’re running clubs, we’re sitting on committees for assessment evaluation or safe-school policy. We’re doing so much in our time that we need to have it available to us. And we need the respect that we can make our own decisions with our time. We need to feel that we’re valued and respected and I don’t think that message is coming across in the negotiations right now.

[What other issues are there, such class size?]

Class size is a provincial issue. We have two-tiered bargaining. We bargain on the provincial level with three parties - the government, the School Board of Ontario, and OSSTF provincial board. So the three of them are bargaining some major issues – pay, class sizes, the bigger issues that affect everyone. The local unions bargain issues that are local to teachers in our constituency - which for us is Peel Region, meaning Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon.

Teachers in Durham Region are individually bargaining with their own School Board for the issues that affect the Durham schools. Things like how many periods are given for special ed. Teachers are released from teaching in the class room so that they can monitor and support special ed students. how many Educational Assistants are assigned to schools with special needs students. These are things that are decided locally.

So right now we are at an impasse at a provincial level. There are big discrepancies in terms of pay, the salary grid, the amount of time it takes to reach the maximum salary for teachers, when movements up the pay grade happen.

[Where does class size fit in?]

The province sets the standard. Right now for academic high school classes, it’s 30 students – and for applied level/college level students, it’s 18 students, which is more manageable in terms of the number of people, bodies in the class room, but in terms of the trying to be a great teacher and reach students and support them, even 18 special needs students is a challenge.

So what’s on the table now is to remove that guideline altogether and make it open to the needs of the school, as determined by the principal. That means a principal could say, this class now meets in the cafeteria, period 1, and there are 200 students in it.

That’s an extreme example and I hope it would never come to that, but there are no rules, no guidelines. They want the rule to be removed. And maybe the rule is removed this year and then slowly, slowly, the numbers just creep up.

Right now high school teachers teach three periods a day and then they can have up to half a period each day of extra duties, such as covering the lunch room or the hallways during a lunch period, or covering another teacher’s class; if another teacher is away, they might cover half of that class. So teachers would be actively teaching 3½ periods a day. And that’s the same for occasional teachers; supply [i.e. substitute] teachers would do the same.

The government is suggesting making occasional teachers teach four periods a day, so they would teach the entire day, their only break would be at lunch. And as you can imagine, as an occasional teacher or supply teacher, it’s a stressful day, you’re on the ball, you’re on those kids, you’re not sitting back at your desk while they work quietly, that doesn’t work. It wouldn’t work for a group of adults. You’re engaging them, you’re encouraging them, you’re sitting with them and working with them, so to do that for the whole day straight without a break... It’s unfair to suggest this change. But again, that’s a provincial issue that’s being negotiated at the provincial table. We’re striking in response to local issues and our right to bargain.

Our bosses do not respect the front line staff anymore. It seems like everyone is replaceable. The only thing that matters is the bottom line. It’s not efficient. You’re not going to work hard if you don’t feel respected. Morale becomes low, and then people really start just phoning it in because they are not respected. And ninety percent of teachers get into this because they really love the job. We do so much on our own time, and they just want to push it so we do more and more.
From another striking teacher:
We’ve been without a contract since August 2014 – and that contract wasn't negotiated fairly, it was imposed on us. It was passed by government legislation against our approval and despite our objections. That’s no way to negotiate any sort of agreement.

There are issues dealing with class sizes. They want to remove the cap on class size. There have been numerous studies proving that an increase in overall class size has resulted in a direct loss of quality of education. Students in large classes get much less one-to-one time, much less progressive assessment throughout the year. And as a result, they’re not getting the quality standard of education that they and parents expect.

In addition to that, the government wants to pass legislation regarding prep time. What teachers can do with prep time. They are trying to set it up so that administrators can assign duties to teachers during prep time, duties which may have nothing to do with their course or their lessons or may not even have anything to do with teaching.

[So when are you supposed to do your prep time then?]

Well, that’s it. That time is time we need. We’re not just sitting around doing nothing. We’re marking, we’re doing lesson plans, we’re preparing activities, we’re even meeting students for one-to-one assistance, for extra help that they may need.

So again, this results in a loss of quality for the students’ education and for their individual lessons. As a result, they are getting a watered down quality, with lowered expectation, for their education. And we have a real serious problem with that.

5.18.2015

welcome to the world, sophia




This beautiful little girl is the newest member of our family, the first of the next generation. Meet Sophia, brand new baby daughter of one of my nephews and nieces(-in-law).

My brother and sister-in-law are thrilled to be grandparents, and my mom the great-grandma is over the moon.

We hope to meet Sophia in person early next year, as part of a Big Trip we are planning. Stay tuned.

5.17.2015

we movie to canada: wmtc annual movie awards, 2014-15 edition

Thanks to everything-on-demand media, and no thanks to my schedule that doesn't permit me nearly enough time for baseball, Movie Season now runs all year, at least marginally. These annual awards now document the movies and TV series we've seen from Opening Day to Opening Day.

To recap my silly rating systems:
- Canadian musicians and comedians (2006-07 and 2007-08)
- my beverage of choice (2008-09)
- famous people who died during the past year (2009-10)
- where I'd like to be (2010-11)
- vegetables (2011-12) (I was out of ideas!)
- Big Life Events in a year full of Big Life Changes (2012-13),
- and last year (2013-14), cheese!

This year's ratings revolve around my favourite pastime, the moments I live for: travel. We can loosely call this theme types of holidays and vacations.



I have always dreamed of traveling for an extended period of time - life on the road. My dream of extended travel probably dates back to reading Travels with Charley when I was 12. But ever since Allan and I traveled by RV in Alaska in 1996, my desire to pack up our family for life on wheels has captured my imagination, sometimes obsessively so.

This is the best life I can dream of. And these are the best movies and series we saw this year.

Boyhood
-- This marvel of film making is utterly absorbing, a tour de force of directing and acting. Truly an experience.

Blue is the Warmest Colour
-- Another lengthy coming-of-age journey, and well worth the ride. Rarely do I feel directors have enough to say to justify lengthy films, but these first two have opened my eyes. Plus gorgeous, frank, and extended lesbian sex. (Naturally this led to a firestorm of criticism, but I disagree.)

True Detective
-- Creepy, scary, suspenseful, weird, excellent.

Justified, final season
-- In its sixth and final season, this show returned to greatness. At times the suspense was almost unbearable. Plus a perfect ending.

Obvious Child
-- Finally, a fictional movie depiction of abortion without apology, as a normal and positive need in a woman's life. The movie itself is a solid wmtc "3" - above average, very well done - but this film scores the highest honour for its politics.

Citizenfour
-- The documentary about Edward Snowden, one of the great heroes of our age, should be mandatory viewing.

Show Me Love (Fucking Amal) (1998; re-watch #1)
-- I fell in love with this film when it came out in 1998, and I was so pleased to love it just as much today. As beautiful a film about teenage life and love you'll ever see.




I love to fly, because it means I'm going somewhere good - or maybe best of all, someplace new. Despite cramped quarters, the indignities of airport security, and everything else most people complain about, for me flying is a pleasure. Only one thing makes this kind of vacation imperfect: I miss my dogs. These films are ever so slightly less than perfect.

Of Gods and Men
-- When you're in the mood for something quiet and contemplative, this film is moving and very satisfying.

Compliance
-- This depiction of a real-life Stanford Prison Experiment is almost too disturbing to watch, and almost too shocking to be true. But it is true. And you should watch it.

12 Years a Slave
-- After all the hype, I didn't expect much from this. I was wrong. It is gripping, moving, and beautifully made.

Howl
-- Part period piece, part biopic, part poetry. I love all things Allen Ginsburg and this was no exception.

Route Irish
-- Ken Loach and Paul Laverty turn their keen gaze on the Iraq War, and its deadly legacy at home. Gripping and disturbing in all the right ways.

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?
-- This totally engaging, entertaining doc examines art and authenticity from all angles. A joy to watch, and so well done.

After Tiller
-- An important film for everyone who cares about reproductive rights, and about justice. If you are inspired by moral courage, here you go.

The Wire, Season 3
-- Three seasons on, this great show keeps getting better. It's perfection.

Finding Vivian Maier
-- An obsession, a legacy, an enigma. As fine a documentary as you'll see. Really on the cusp between the RV and the plane travel.

Broadchurch, Season 1
-- A gripping, suspenseful murder mystery, with more than its share of complex characters, and full of compassion, humanity, and difficult truths. Absolutely excellent.

Bill Cunningham New York
-- A beautifully made film about a unique, obsessive genius, plus a view of New York you're unlikely to see anywhere else. A must-see.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali
-- This excellent documentary about the political life of the great Ali would be in the RV category but for one complaint. The filmmakers depict almost nothing of the political and social context of Ali's struggles; watching this, you would never know that an entire movement of Vietnam War resisters existed. Still an excellent film and a must-see for lovers of history and of peace.

Oslo August 31st
-- A day in the life of a man struggling with addiction. Quiet, dark, and moving.

The Normal Heart
-- Larry Kramer brings us to 1980s New York City, the birth of the AIDS crisis, and of the first organized response to it. Love, loss, rage, resistance, identity.

Say Anything (1989) (1989; re-watch #2)
-- This quirky, funny, sweet, authentic story of teenage love holds up perfectly. It was a great film then, and it's a great film now. Sadly, a scene that was once achingly beautiful is now a tired internet meme. That's not the movie's fault.




On the road! It's not green but I love it. If our travel plans include a long road trip, I'm happy. If you see these films, you'll be glad you did.

Stories We Tell
-- This film by Canadian Sarah Polley unfolds and surprises, and raises interesting questions about the interplay of past and present. I got a little tired of the visuals - it almost works better as an audio documentary - but it was very well done.

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle
-- This PBS doc looks at the dawn and evolution of the comic book hero. Terrific.

The Guard
-- Brendon Gleeson stars in this very dark, very Irish comedy by John Michael McDonagh. Not your usual cop-buddy movie. Really really good.

Calvary
-- Brendon Gleeson inhabits another film by John Michael McDonagh. This one is very nearly plane travel. It's an odd, moving film, and Gleeson's performance is off the charts.

Maidentrip
-- A documentary about a 14-year-old girl trying to sail around the world? Sign me up! I dare you not to fall in love with Laura Dekker, at least a little.

Ida
-- A quiet, sad redemption story. Very good.

The Immigrant
-- A vivid, melodramatic redemption story. Also very good.

We Are the Best!
-- Lukas Moodysson ("Show Me Love", above) directs this fun, smart film about a girl punk band.

Her
-- I expected a cliche about the hazards of over-reliance on technology. Instead I got a complex meditation on human relationships. Funny, sad, and profound. Great discussion fodder.

Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
-- An examination of the book, the movie, its cultural context, and what we can know about Harper Lee. Won't knock your socks off, but an interesting view into the creation of one of the most enduring novels of all time.

Gloria
-- An older woman, on her own, making peace with herself and her alone-ness. Nice movie. Many points for non-beautified older-person sex.

Smashed
-- Addiction, recovery, and relationships. Often funny, not too heavy, very honest. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is amazing.

Nebraska
-- A nice film about family and redemption. Overrated, in my opinion, but still worth seeing.

The Spectacular Now
-- After reading this youth novel, I wondered how badly the movie would be botched. Surely no one will make a movie for teenagers with such a bleak, hopeless ending. But the film was good, and the ending, although considerably softened, was still ambiguous and realistic.

Enough Said
-- A second-time-around older person's romantic comedy. Good acting, some truly nice moments, and less hokey than I expected.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Word
-- Total fun and entertainment.

Star Trek Into Darkness
-- I could have lived without the overt 9/11 references, but at least the message was about choosing peace over revenge. Fun and entertaining.

The Rise and Fall of Penn Station (PBS American Experience)
-- A solid documentary about the building of the first rail lines to Manhattan. Not really about Penn Station, the building that died so that others might live.

District 9
-- A little heavy-handed and obvious for my tastes, but a good sci-fi look at bigotry and xenophobia.

It Might Get Loud
-- A cynic might see this as a marketing ploy to capture three demographics. A more generous review might see an exploration of music and musicians across generations. I'm somewhere in between. Worth seeing and some great music.

The Fall, Season 2
-- Not the incredibly suspenseful and scary excitement of Season 1, but very good.

The Best of Men
-- This biopic of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a pioneer of spinal cord injury treatment and rehabilitation, chronicles an important piece of disability (and veterans') history. A made-for-TV feel, but still worth seeing.

Faded Gigolo
-- John Turturro makes a Woody Allen film. Nice.

Trance
-- This Danny Boyle crime thriller is at times clunky and non-credible, but it's still suspenseful and fun to watch.

West of Memphis
-- A solid documentary about a modern-day witch hunt, and the banality of injustice.

Hateship Loveship
-- A small, quiet, lovely film that explores the complexities of human relationships. Sweet and romantic, but thoroughly unsentimental and unpredictable. Kristin Wiig turns in an amazing performance. The whole cast is excellent. Really worth seeing.

The Importance of Being Earnest
-- If you like Oscar Wilde, you'll enjoy this. If you don't, what is wrong with you?!

The Ides of March
-- Money, politics, scandal. It won't shock you (unless you live in a cave) but it's a decent movie. Plus PSH.

The Search for Michael Rockefeller
-- This doc about the search for the young, disappeared Rockefeller leaves you with more questions than answers. Worth a look.

-- Heathers (1988; re-watch #3)
I remembered how funny this was, but not how dark. Such a good movie.



One word away from David Foster Wallace, here's a supposedly fun thing I'll never do. I can think of few things less appealing than taking a vacation on one of these things. But if I did, I'd probably find some redeeming value, like swimming in a nice pool, or a chance to read a lot. These films had some shred of saving quality that kept them from the scrap heap.

The Golden Compass
-- After reading the book, I thought I should see the movie. It was all right.

Inside Llewyn Davis
-- A passable period piece about a mediocre musician and the 1961 New York music scene. One of the most over-rated films I've ever seen.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball
-- This is a great story, and I really wanted to like the film, but the 20th time you hear someone say the same thing...

Abandoned America
-- A one-episode version of the "Forgotten Planet" documentary. Overheated narration with no context.

Broadchurch, Season 2
-- A huge disappointment! They should have stopped after Season 1.

Laurence Anyways
-- I want to support every trans story out there, but a bad film is a bad film. A confused mess.

The Art of the Steal
-- A crime and con caper about art thieves. Sounded great. Was not.

But I'm a Cheerleader
-- Maybe this was good when it came out in 1999. Won't kill you, but for satirical fun and gay romance, you can do much better than this.

Blue Jasmine
-- How sad to dislike a Woody Allen movie so much. Despite some very fine performances, this film was tedious and annoying.

Silence of Love
-- Perhaps much of this movie, about a man coming to terms with the loss of his wife, was lost in translation. It was a hodge-podge. A mess. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt by keeping it out of the bottom category.

The Secret in their Eyes
-- A failed attempt to make peace with the past, in a movie that started strong and ended with a splat.

I'm So Excited
-- How it pains me to put not one, but two films by Almodovar in the bottom categories! This lame attempt at campy fun is occasionally fun to look at. Otherwise it is dreadful.

Fever Pitch (1997)
-- Sports part good. Romance part bad.

They Call It Myanmar
-- You might glean some interesting facts and views of Burma/Myanmar from this bad documentary, but then again, you could clean out a closet and feel like you accomplished something.

CBGB
-- With Alan Rickman as Hilly Kristal, this film had a lot of promise. Yet it was a tedious bore. Some nice-ish moments.

A Fantastic Fear of Everything
-- Sadly, the presence of Simon Pegg does not guarantee a good movie. One or two chuckles.

The Interrupters
-- This doc has great credentials: Steve James, who made "Hoop Dreams" and Alex Kotlowitz, who has chronicled inner-city America in books such as There Are No Children Here, make a movie about activists trying to staunch the violence in their community. Despite this and great reviews, I found little more than a series of cliches strung together without context.

We Cause Scenes
-- Maybe one day someone will make a good movie showing all the funny and clever things that Improv Everywhere does. Unfortunately, in this movie, Improv Everywhere tells you how great Improv Everywhere is.

The Monuments Men
-- So this is what star-studded, over-produced, manipulative, obvious Hollywood movies look like. Plus some artwork.

Museum Hours
-- Two people develop an unlikely friendship in Vienna. Boring, but with artwork.

The Inbetweeners Movie
-- Loved the show. Movie, no.

The Princess Bride (1987; re-watch #4)
-- It's kind of cool to see the origins of an internet meme, but other than that, I couldn't remember why everyone loves this movie. Saved from the bottom category by an all-star cast.




Yes, that's right, I'd rather go on a commercial cruise than go camping. I love nature, but I need to sleep in a bed and take a hot shower in the morning. I hated camping even before I was too old to sleep on the ground. Camping sucks and so do these movies.

The Skin I Live In
-- Almodovar, how could you? Multiple rapes, torture, mustache-twirling villains, and completely non-credible plot twists. Absolutely awful.

The Devil's Knot
-- Do yourself a favour: see "West of Memphis," and skip this dreadful fictional version.

Locke
-- This was like a bad off-off-off-Broadway play. Luckily I could turn it off.

Stranger by the Lake
-- Once you know your lover is a serial killer, why do you continue to hook up with him? I sure as hell don't know. Close-up gay sex, full of penises, might rescue this for some people. But it's a really bad movie.

* * * *

This year's solo binge watching:
Farscape (finishing from previous year)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Longmire
The Good Wife (watching now)
Murdoch Mysteries, more seasons

This year's binge watching that didn't work:
Doc Martin
The Gilmore Girls

Future potential binge watches:
Angel
Brothers and Sisters

This year's comedies:
Bewitched
Parks and Recreation, more seasons
The Vicar of Dibley (re-watch)
The Mindy Project
Bojack Horseman
Brooklyn 9-9
The Inbetweeners
30 Rock (watching now)

5.03.2015

what i'm reading: salt sugar fat by michael moss

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss is an excellent addition to a bookshelf that includes works by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Marian Nestle and others who write about the health of our food and the un-health of the industrial food system. Moss lifts the curtain on the giant corporations that engineer and market convenience foods and processed foods. What he reveals is largely invisible to us on a daily basis, yet affects our society significantly - and catastrophically.

Moss is a seasoned investigative reporter - he was the first to expose trans fats, and more recently "pink slime" - and this book is a tour de force of research. Moss takes you to the laboratory and the board room, where chemical engineers and marketing executives contrive to get North Americans eating more and more of everything unhealthy. (The book is written in a US context, but it is equally relevant to Canada.)

Salt Sugar Fat is full of wonderful mini-histories of corporations like Kellogg's and Kraft, and eye-popping demographic data about what North Americans eat. You'll learn how our food has become increasingly sweeter, increasing both our tolerance and desire for ever-sweeter food. How we eat three times as much cheese as we did 40 years ago, now that cheese - or more accurately, a processed substance distantly related to real cheese - is used as an additive in countless foods. And especially, the myriad ways that the holy trinity of salt-sugar-fat is used by food engineers to encourage overconsumption.

Here's an example of a little gem I gleaned from this book. I've always scoffed at fruit drinks that are cynically marketed as containing "10% real juice," meaning, of course, that they are 90% water and sugar. For people accustomed to drinking soda (pop), 10% real juice may seem like a healthy improvement. But Moss describes the how the "juice" in those drinks is created.
At is extreme, the process results in what is known within the industry as "stripped juice," which is basically pure sugar, almost entirely devoid of the fiber, flavors, aromas, and any of the other attributes we associate with real fruit. In other words, the concentrate is reduced to just another form of sugar, with no nutritional benefit over table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Rather, its value lies in the healthy image of the fruit that it retains. ... A company like General Foods can use this stuff and still put the comforting words contains real fruit on the box.
Much of Salt Sugar Fat is about economics. Moss quotes a parade of food executives - whistleblowers and industry faithfuls alike - who are all caught in the same trap: reduce the amount of salt, sugar, or fat, and the product's taste will suffer drastically. Therefore consumers will buy less. Therefore consumers will buy the competitor product without the reduced additives. And therefore the company cannot reduce the additives.

When reductions are possible, they are immediately offset. It is a principle of the processed food industry - the first commandment, the sacrosanct law - that a reduction in one of the trinity must be countered with an increase in another. Is the product lower fat? Then it is higher in salt. Is it slightly lower in salt? Then it is higher in sugar. Without copious amounts of these three ingredients in various engineered forms, processed food would be completely inedible.

One such tale from within Kraft Foods said it all. A group of high-level insiders was very concerned about the health implications of the company's products. There was no getting around it anymore: these processed foods are contributing to skyrocketing rates of hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. (Moss refers to this as "the obesity epidemic," but it is actually about health, not weight.) These Kraft insiders fought against a deeply entrenched corporate culture, risking their livelihoods, to force their colleagues to face these facts. They worked very hard, and succeeded in reducing some of the salt-sugar-fat in the company's products by a tiny bit. Only a tiny bit, one might say, but a start.

Then the sales figures came in. These concerned insiders were immediately slapped down by the board of directors, speaking for the shareholders. Wall Street reminded the company that they are not in the business of caring about what consumers eat. They are in the business of making money. The executive behind the internal movement was demoted, her career significantly curtailed.

Are companies trying to do better? Moss crunches the numbers.
"In Capri Sun alone we took out 120 billion calories," [Kraft executive] Firestone said. ... "We've looked at the amount of sodium we've taken out. Last year was six million pounds, and we're going to add nine billion servings of whole grain between now and 2013..."

If those numbers sound impressive consider what Michelle Obama manged to wrestle out of the entire processed food industry in 2010, after asking for their help in fighting obesity. "I am thrilled to say that they have pledged to cut a total of one trillion calories from the food they sell annually by the year year 2012, and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015," she announced. ...

The math on all this, however, is less compelling. If everyone in America consumed the standard 2,000 calories a day, or 730,000 a year, the 1.5 trillion in saved calories would reduce our collective eating by not quite 1 percent. It's actually bleaker than that, according to some health policy experts. In reality, many of us consume far more than 2,000 calories, and processed foods make up a large part, but not all, or our diets. So the real drop in consumption from those 1.5 trillion calories is likely much less than that 1 percent. Still, it's a start.
Is it? Salt Sugar Fat leads one to question a system that would rely on these industries to safeguard consumer health. And what about the government agencies tasked with keeping the industries in check? They are a significant part of the problem.
With the American people facing an epidemic of obesity and hardened arteries, the "People's Department" doesn't regulate fat as much as it grants the industry's every wish. Indeed, when it comes to the greatest sources of fat - meat and cheese - the Department of Agriculture has joined industry as a full partner in the most urgent mission of all: cajoling the people to eat more.
Moss frequently notes the connections between the processed food industry and the tobacco industry. Kraft and General Foods - the two mega-giants of processed food - were for a long time owned by the Philip Morris corporation. Kraft and General Foods, now one company, are no longer owned by Big Tobacco, but the marketing and engineering principles of that industry informed the companies' cultures and decision-making. The language of addiction and the view of salt-sugar-fat as narcotics run through this book.

When reading Salt Sugar Fat, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is, at bottom, an economic problem. Moss touches on these issues; for example, he mentions more than once the class divide between the food industry executives, who never eat their own products, and their customers. But I wish he went further. For example, Moss writes about the convenience stores overloaded with processed foods, selling no fresh foods at all, and the insidious (and invisible) industry practices that cause this. But he mentions only once, in passing, that these same neighbourhoods are usually food deserts, making processed food laden with salt-sugar-fat the only option for many low-income families.

Another economic factor Moss alludes to, but doesn't examine, is something we hear about all the time in a non-economic context: families are so busy now, both parents work (usually portrayed as "more women are in the workforce"), families don't have time to cook proper meals. That's worth examining, too. Why are families so much busier now, why do both parents work? One principal reason: for most people, it's impossible to raise a family on one income, because the cost of living, especially housing costs, has far outstripped wages.

For anyone writing about the food industry and overconsumption, economic factors are an intrinsic part of the picture. Moss understands that. I just wish he went further.

It's not only an economic issue, of course. It's also an education issue. In my workplace yesterday, a colleague left some "healthy" cereal out to share. Its packaging was full of claims like "no preservatives" and "all natural". Everything about it, down to the colours and fonts used on the packaging said "healthy" and "alternative". The first four ingredients, in order, were: sugar, wheat, corn syrup, and honey. That is, three of the four top ingredients are sugar. And the wheat is not even whole grain, so the human body processes it largely as sugar.

In the end, Moss concludes that we have a choice. We control what we buy. We control what we eat. We can choose to not eat processed food and convenience food.

That is technically true. But it is also incomplete, reductionist, and disingenuous, as Moss himself has shown in more than 400 pages of excellent writing and impeccable research. The individual consumer must be extremely motivated, and blessed with a mighty will, to withstand the economic, social, cultural, and biological forces stacked up against her. The stuff is engineered to make us over-consume, our bodies are biologically programmed to like the stuff and want more of it, and many of us cannot afford to do otherwise.

Despite these critiques, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is page-turning, eye-opening, thought-provoking book that I highly recommend.

4.22.2015

everything is political: bewitched, george washington, will geer, and free speech

You may recall that my current comedy-before-bed TV sleep aid is a sitcom from my childhood: "Bewitched". I've been thoroughly enjoying watching its ridiculous, predictable humour and sometimes surprising messaging. I was in the middle of the eighth and final season when Netflix pulled the show. (Argh!) But thanks to our amazing world of media, I was able to switch over to YouTube, viewed on TV via Roku.

In Season 8, episode 21 and 22, Bewitched recycles a template from an earlier episode. In Season 1, daffy Aunt Clara (played by Marion Lorne) mistakenly brings Ben Franklin into the 20th Century, an opportunity for a hijinks and history lessons. When Marion Lorne died during Season 5, Aunt Clara's role was replaced by the daffy Esmeralda (played by Alice Ghostley), and it's Esmeralda who mistakenly brings George Washington into the present.

This is a well-worn conceit of magic and time-travel, but imagine my surprise when the Founding Father becomes a defender of the First Amendment and a critic of modern marketing!
George Washington, addressing a small gathering in a public park: Earlier I stood here and listened to some of you explain what is going on in this country. Things like assassinations, pollution, war - wars to end war that don't end wars. This does not please me.

[A man with long hair nods in agreement. "You tell 'em, George!"]

GW: Where is the voice of The People? Remember what my friend Tom Jefferson said? "What country can preserve its liberties unless its rulers are warned from time to time that the people reserve the spirit of resistance."

[Ordinary people all nod in agreement.]

Police officer, walking through small polite crowd that has gathered: OK, break it up, George.

GW: George? You will refer to me as Mr. President or General Washington.

Police: Sorry, General, but you have to break it up.

GW: And just what is it that you want me to 'break up'?

P: This rally. Unless, of course, you have a park permit to speak.

GW: The only permit I need is the Constitution of the United States.

Long-haired man: Hear, hear!

Crowd: Hear, hear! Right on!

GW: Hear, hear, hear.

Police: Why don't you be a good fellow and tell me where you escaped from.

GW: I have escaped from the past into the present, and I must say that what I have seen so far does not please me.

P: But you're gonna break it up or you're under arrest.

GW: Under the abstract theory of our government, a person is entitled to resist illegal arrest. We are allowed the right of free assembly under our Constitution.

[Crowd applauds.]
Later, at home, Washington wonders pointedly about his predicament.
GW: What has happened to this country that was founded on freedom? Does the Constitution still exist? The Bill of Rights?

Darrin: Yes, of course, Mr. President.

GW: Then why do The People not exercise their rights?

Samantha: Sometimes it's easier to be led than to lead. And a great many of our citizens prefer to stand on the sidelines and ignore their rights instead of defending them. They're called the "silent majority".

GW: Experience has shown that mankind is more disposed to suffer evils while those evils are sufferable than to right themselves and abolish those abuses.
In the second part of "George Washington Zapped Here," Darrin's boss Larry Tate seizes on the supposed Washington impersonator for - what else - an advertising campaign, and gets more than he bargained for. Even though it costs Darrin the account, Darrin is proud that the Father of the Country stood up for truth and authenticity.
GW, reading from script: '...and your clothes will be cleaner than clean and whiter than white.' How could anything be cleaner than clean or whiter than white?

Darrin: It's just a way of saying it, Mr. President.

GW: Doesn't make sense.

Larry Tate: So few things do these days. It's a sign of the times!

GW, reading: '...Then use the Whirlaway Washer, America's finest...' Is it really?

Tate: Would I lie to you, Mr. President?

GW: I don't know you well enough to make that judgement. Mr. Jameson, why is this America's finest washing machine?

Jameson, owner of the company, gritting his teeth, to Tate: Is this some kind of a put-on?

Tate: Mr. President, please, just read what is written.

GW: Not another word until you answer my question. After all, if my name is to be used, I will not have it tarnished by falsehood.

Tate: Look, it's a darn good washer. Now read it. Please.

Washington goes around the room, inspecting ads for various washing machines, reading out the name of each one.

GW: Superior Washing Machine, Ultra Washing Machine, Standard Washing Machine, Whirlaway Washing Machine. Each one looks very much like the others.

Jameson: Each one is very much like the others.

GW: Then why do you give them different names?

Darrin: It's called merchandising, Mr. President. You see, Whirlaway builds them, and then the stores put their own labels on them.

GW: In that case, Whirlaway washing machine is no better or worse than the others.

Darrin: Correct. [The ad man finds his ethics!]

GW: Then in good conscience I cannot say that Whirlaway washing machine is better than the others.

Jameson: I've had just about enough of this!

GW: And so have I, sir. Yesterday I was arrested for defending the Constitution of the United States. Today I am asked, in the name of honesty, to utter falsehoods. I will not lend my name to this deception.
But wait, there's more. George Washington is played by Will Geer. Geer is best known for his portrayal of Grandpa Walton on the hugely popular family drama "The Waltons," but he has other credits that may be more relevant. From Wikipedia:
Geer became a member of the Communist Party of the United States in 1934. Geer was also influential in introducing Harry Hay to organizing in the Communist Party. In 1934, Geer and Hay gave support to a labor strike of the port of San Francisco; the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike lasted 83 days. Though marred by violence, it was an organizing triumph, one that became a model for future union strikes. Geer became a reader of the West Coast Communist newspaper, the People's World.

Geer became a dedicated activist, touring government work camps in the 1930s with folk singers like Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie (whom he introduced to the People's World and the Daily Worker; Guthrie would go on to write a column for the latter paper). In 1956, the duo released an album together on Folkways Records, titled Bound for Glory: Songs and Stories of Woody Guthrie. In his biography, fellow organizer and gay rights pioneer Harry Hay described Geer's activism and outlined their activities while organizing for the strike. Geer is credited with introducing Guthrie to Pete Seeger at the 'Grapes of Wrath' benefit Geer organized in 1940 for migrant farm workers. . . .

Geer was blacklisted in the early 1950s for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. As a result, Geer appeared in very few films over the following decade. Notable among them was Salt of the Earth which was produced, directed, written, and starring blacklisted Hollywood personnel and told the story of a miners' strike in New Mexico from a pro-union standpoint. The film was denounced as "subversive" and faced difficulties in its production and distribution as a consequence.
George Washington Zapped Here, Part 1 (GW in the park at 15:54-17:40 and at home at 19:30-20:07.)

George Washington Zapped Here, Part 2 (GW with the ad men at 14:42-16:55; Samantha defends First Amendment rights while Darrin looks on approvingly at 18:35-21:18.)

While writing this post, I found a wonderful excerpt from a study of Bewitched, courtesy of Google Books. The author, Walter Metz, compares the politics of that earlier Ben Franklin episode with those of the George Washington episode, and divines a change in the national mood. I found it interesting enough to want to hunt down this book. If you're also interested, go here, search for "George Washington" and read pages 108-112.

icymi: indiana woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for failed pregnancy

This month, four decades of anti-woman, anti-abortion hysteria in the US hit a new low.

Last August, an Indiana woman sought medical attention after a premature delivery resulted in the death of the fetus. The emergency-room doctor called the police.

In April, that woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

From WaPo:
Indiana woman jailed for "feticide." It's never happened before.

...Informed that officials were heading to her home, Patel told her doctors that she'd had a miscarriage and had left her stillborn fetus in a dumpster behind a shopping center. Still in his hospital scrubs, McGuire followed police cars to the scene and examined the fetus, which he pronounced dead on arrival. Patel was charged with child neglect, and later with killing her fetus, and on Monday she was sentenced to 20 consecutive years in prison.

The verdict makes Patel the first woman in the U.S. to be charged, convicted and sentenced for "feticide" for ending her own pregnancy, according to the group National Advocates for Pregnant Women (“NAPW”). Though Patel said she had had a miscarriage, she was found guilty of taking illegal abortion drugs. The Indiana statute under which Patel was convicted bans "knowingly or intentionally terminat[ing] a human pregnancy" with any intention other than producing a live birth, removing a dead fetus or performing a legal abortion.

Monday's sentencing brought an end to Patel's trial, but it may be only the beginning of the public debate about the details of her case. Patel's conviction has many pro-choice activists alarmed that feticide laws, initially passed as a means of protecting pregnant women from providers of dangerous illegal abortions and other sources of harm, are now being used against them.

"Prosecutors in Indiana are using this very sad situation to establish that intentional abortions as well as unintentional pregnancy losses should be punished as crimes," Lynn Paltrow, executive director for NAPW, told the Guardian in August of 2014. "...No woman should be arrested for the outcome of her pregnancy."
From The Guardian, at the time of Patel's arrest.
A 33-year-old woman from Indiana has been charged with the feticide and fetal murder of her unborn child after she endured a premature delivery and sought hospital treatment.

Purvi Patel faces between six and 20 years in prison for feticide and up to 50 years imprisonment for neglect of a dependent when she goes to trial, currently scheduled for 29 September. She is the second woman in Indiana to be charged with feticide following the prolonged criminal prosecution of Bei Bei Shuai, who lost her baby when she tried to kill herself.

Women's rights advocates see the decision by prosecutors of St Joseph County, Indiana, to apply feticide laws against Patel as part of the creeping criminalization of pregnancy in America. At least 38 of the 50 states have introduced fetal homicide laws intended to protect the unborn child and in a growing number of states – including Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina – those laws have been turned against mothers.
I would offer only one correction: these laws were never intended to "protect the unborn child". The laws are being used exactly for their intended purpose: to police and punish women. Especially - or exclusively - low-income women. Because let's be clear: the US's "war on women" is also a class war. Women who can afford private treatment will never be subjected to these humiliations. On the other hand, with the middle class shrinking and poverty burgeoning throughout the US, increasing numbers of women must fear these nightmare scenarios.

What would policies intended to "protect the unborn child" look like? Laws that gave us: Fresh, healthy food that every person could afford. Free quality pre-natal care. Free quality medical care for every person. Free childcare for the children already born. Jobs that pay a true living wage. Clean water.

Policies intended to protect children - in any stage of their lives - don't criminalize pregnancy.

* * * *

Canadians take note: a fetal personhood law was floated as a private member's bill in the Harper government. The MP who sponsored the bill admitted that its purpose was to "recognize the humanity of the unborn child". The recent sentencing in Indiana is the direct outcome of that kind of language enshrined into law.

The bill was defeated after public outcry.

4.15.2015

today! fight for fifteen on 4-15

Today, working people across North America - and the world - will rally, demonstrate, and go on strike for two demands: fifteen and fairness.

In the US, fast-food workers are joined by childcare workers, contract (adjunct) teachers, airport workers, and other low-wage earners, as this movement continues to grow. They will demonstrate in more than 50 cities. They are demanding 15 and a union: a $15/hour minimum wage and the right to organize without fear of reprisal.

In Ontario, workers will demonstrate outside the Ministry of Labour in Toronto, demanding Fifteen and Fairness: a $15/hour minimum wage, decent hours for decent jobs, paid sick days, and labour laws that protect every worker.

There have been significant victories. Seattle and San Francisco raised the minimum wage in those cities to $15/hour; Oakland raised it to $12.25. Poverty-pay giants like Walmart and McDonald's have been forced to concede major pay raises, with more to follow.

Massive movements in New York, Chicago, and L.A. are getting huge media attention. Organized fast-food workers have succeed in bringing labour issues to the forefront, in a way we have not seen in decades. Public pressure is building.

In Ontario, labour activism set the standard a decade ago when they won a $10/hour minimum wage. Last year organized workers won a minimum wage indexed to inflation, an important victory. I have no doubt that the fight for 15 and Fairness will have similar results.

Learn how you can fight for better working conditions and support others who do: here and here. On Twitter: #15andFairness and #FightFor15.

4.12.2015

50,000 mexican farmworkers are on strike, and almost no one in north america knows about it

Did you know that 50,000 Mexican farmworkers are on strike?

If your answer is no, you have plenty of company. The Los Angeles Times is the only English-language mainstream media venue to regularly cover the strike. Canadian media, predictably, only wants to know how it will affect food prices.

These farmworkers harvest the fruits and vegetables that fill our supermarkets and our tables. They are paid $8 per day - that's right, not per hour, per day. They are gouged at company stores where they must purchase necessities, and see their pay routinely withheld without explanation. They are denied breaks and access to clean drinking water. They are not paid for overtime. Company housing is filthy and vermin-infested. Female workers are subjected to sexual harassment on a regular basis.

What decade, what century is this? The working class fights this battle again and again.

From Sonali Kolhatkar, writing in Truthdig:
Years ago the sparsely populated San Quintín area was converted into an industrial agricultural center by growers who imported indigenous workers from southern states such as Oaxaca. Bacon compared the dozen or so ranches in the area to the maquiladoras, or factories, that sprang up along the Mexican side of the U.S. border. He described the conditions of the labor camps where workers live as “really awful and terrible.”

Starting in the 1970s many of Baja California's workers began to cross the U.S. border through California into the Central Valley, and even to states like Washington. "These are all connected communities," maintained Bacon, which is why the San Quintín strike is big news among farmworker communities in the U.S. such as Washington’s Skagit County.

Sadly, it is not very big news elsewhere in the U.S. When the strike began last week, the Los Angeles Times was the only English-language media outlet in the country to initially cover it. (Since then, a week later, The Associated Press and others have begun to report on the strike.)
The farmworkers work for hugely profitable agribusinesses, including Driscoll's, the most popular berry supplier in North America, and a company that enjoys a labour-friendly image.

I didn't find much about how we can support striking farmworkers. The United Farm Workers - the legendary union begun by the late great Cesar Chavez - has a petition: sign here.

[PS: If you are interested in Cesar Chavez, it appears you should skip the movie. See this one instead.]