9.25.2016

what i'm reading: your heart is a muscle the size of a fist, by sunil yapa

If only Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist could be required reading. Everyone who has ever scoffed cynically at protesters. Everyone who has ever seen a mainstream news report showing a burning car, over and over and over, but not showing tens of thousands of peaceful protesters, and looked no deeper. Everyone who has ever denied police violence against peaceful, law-abiding citizens, or assumed that police violence is necessary to maintain order at protests. Every one of these people should read this book.

In this impressive debut novel, author Sunil Yapa takes us into the so-called "Battle of Seattle" -- the protests against the World Trade Organization summit in that city in 1999. But the time and place could be any of the G8 or G10 or G20 summits -- any of the meetings where the ruling elite side-step the democratic process as they carve up the world for global capitalism.

The reader sees the mass protests through the eyes of many different characters: activists, cops, delegates, restless world travelers. People in grief, people with secrets, people searching. Activists who have different motivations and different levels of experience and commitment. Cops who care deeply about their city and its people, cops who care about power and revenge. A delegate who believes the WTO is the answer to world hunger and poverty, and wants his third-world country at the table. The action takes place in a single day, and by the time the day is over, every character will be profoundly changed by the experience.

The politics of the book are obvious, but woven naturally into the fabric of the story. Most of the characters feel fully realized; rarely is anyone a billboard for an idea. The author does an especially excellent job of articulating how it feels to join a mass protest -- the deep love, solidarity, and sense of belonging it can create. He also portrays police violence fully and in horrifying detail -- a story that needs to be told.

My required-reading daydream dissolves in the light of day. The people who most need to read this book won't read it, and if they did, wouldn't believe it. They would accuse the author of fabricating and exaggerating. For better and worse, The Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is authentic, and genuine, and true. An excellent read for people who care.

9.19.2016

what i'm reading: the evil hours, a biography of post-traumatic stress disorder

The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an outstanding book -- meticulously researched, but written in a compelling, accessible style, and with great humanity and compassion.

Author David J. Morris unearths the social and cultural history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the fourth most common psychiatric disorder in the US. He surveys the potential treatments. He explores the role of social justice in our understanding of PTSD.

But above all, Morris confronts the meaning of trauma, in society and in his own life. Morris was a U.S. Marine stationed in Iraq. After narrowly escaping death, he returned home questioning everything he thought he knew -- and eventually having to face the reality of his own trauma. Morris' dual role as both researcher and subject give this book a unique power as history, social science, and personal essay.

People have known for centuries, for millennia, that traumatic events produce after-effects, but different cultures in different eras have explained those effects in different ways. The modern history of trauma is linked to the carnage of 20th Century war. And our current understanding of PTSD owes everything to the Vietnam War, and the experience of returning veterans who publicly opposed the war.

In this way, the history of PTSD encompasses a history of 1960s and 1970s peace activism, especially of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group that began a sea-change in the culture of the United States. As a student of peace, I found this part fascinating.

Taking this even further, Morris links PTSD and social justice. Powerless and marginalized people are more likely to be traumatized by one or more of the four principal causes of PTSD: war, genocide, torture, rape. Taking a social and cultural perspective forces us to confront a world that causes these traumas. In this view, PTSD is not so much an illness as a moral condition brought on by the worst of human society.

The United States Veterans Administration (VA) sees it quite differently. To the VA, PTSD is strictly a medical condition. And this matters greatly, because research about PTSD is almost entirely funded and controlled by the VA. Explaining trauma as purely medical or biological doesn't address the causes at all. In fact, it does the opposite -- it normalizes PTSD as a natural consequence of unavoidable circumstances.

As for treatment, Morris surveys what's out there and finds most of it useless. VA hospitals and insurance companies prefer therapies that can be "manualized" -- made uniform, with a certain number of treatments and little or no emotional engagement from the therapist. Statistically, these types of therapies appear to be useful -- until one learns that the numbers don't include all the patients who drop out! Talk about cooking the books: everyone for whom the treatment isn't working or, in many cases, is actually worsening their symptoms, is simply ignored.

Morris himself feels that therapeutic talks with an empathetic person with some training goes further than neuroscience can. "What they [the VA] seem to want instead," Morris writes, "is mass-produced, scalable, scripted therapies that make for compelling PowerPoint slides."

Readers of this blog may know that I have PTSD. Much of The Evil Hours brought a shock of recognition -- the feeling that someone else is expressing your own thoughts, saying exactly what you've been thinking all along. Morris perfectly articulates how trauma plays out in one's life, the depths of change it brings about.

Morris writes: "We are born in debt, owing the world a death. This is the shadow that darkens every cradle. Trauma is what happens when you catch a surprise glimpse of that darkness.”

In the immediate aftermath of my own trauma, while trying to write about my experience, this is exactly the image I fixated on. We are, all of us, dancing on the edge of a great precipice, usually unaware of how terrifyingly close we are to that edge. Then something happens, and we understand it, not in some theoretical way, but immediately and profoundly, perhaps in a way humans are not equipped to understand. We talk about "the fragility of life" but we don't know what that is -- until we do. Then we spend a lifetime trying to live with the knowledge.

"One of the paradoxes of trauma," writes Morris, "is that it happens in a moment, but it can consume a lifetime. The choice of how much time it is permitted to consume is usually in the hands of the survivor."

The Evil Hours may be very useful for people who are figuring out how to stop PTSD from consuming any more of their lives. It is certainly a must-read for anyone interested in the effects of trauma on the human mind.

9.17.2016

fun with bag signs: in which i am photographed removing garbage from my neighbourhood

Are there bag signs where you live?

In Mississauga and perhaps most suburban places, people put up bag signs advertising services. The signs are cheap to buy and easy to post. They are also illegal. To me, they are the Nexus of Evil: advertising plus visual pollution plus polyethylene waste.

I have called 311 to complain about these signs in my neighbourhood, and if the City has someone available, they will sometimes dispatch a crew to remove the signs. Presumably this crew is also doing other outdoor maintenance, or perhaps they are driving around removing bag signs, which would be awesome.

Allan and I also remove these signs ourselves. When we lived in a house, we would throw the signs in the garage until enough had collected, then bundle up the vinyl for trash and the metal frames for recycling. Now, while we're out with our dogs, we'll just put the whole thing in a public trash barrel.

This morning while I was out with Diego, I slipped the vinyl off a bag sign, crumbled it up, and threw it in the trash. As I turned the corner, I noticed a car parked across the street, the driver removing something from the trunk. Then he walked towards me, carrying a sign.

Diego and I watched as he pushed the metal frame into the ground. I said, "You know that's illegal, right?"

Sign man said, "Are you a city councilor or a police?"

Me: "No, I'm a resident of this neighbourhood and you are polluting it."

Signman: "It is only for a few days, then I will come back and remove it." Ha!

Me: "That doesn't matter. It's illegal. As soon as you walk away, I'm going to remove it."

Signman: "You cannot do that. Only a city councilor or police can do that."

Me: "That's incorrect. I've called the City and they said it was fine to remove these any time."

Signman: "If you remove this sign, I will take your picture and I will sue you!"

Actual Photo of Me Throwing Out the Sign
Me: "Great! Excellent. I will give you my name and phone number right now. Let's exchange phone numbers and you can sue me."

Signman: "I don't want your name and number! I will take your picture!"

Now, I am not a lawyer, but I think it might be difficult to sue someone if you only have their photo, but not their name.

Me: "Ok, get ready." He backed up -- I assume because of Diego's presence -- and I stepped forward to slip the vinyl off the frame.

He took out his cell phone, and I smiled and posed with the crumpled sign. I normally hate being photographed, but this was fun.

As Diego and I walked away with the sign, Signman shouted after me, "See you in court!"

"See you there," I said. "Have a nice day!"

9.04.2016

happy labour day



How have labour unions benefitted our society? Union activism brought us:
Weekends! Literally. There used to be an expression: "Don't come to work on Sunday, don't come to work on Monday." Meaning, if you took one day off, you were fired.
Vacations - any vacation
Paid vacations
The 8-hour work day
An end to child labour, so every child could have an education
Rest breaks
Equal pay for equal work for women
Sick leave
Canada Pension Plan
Universal health care
The minimum wage
Pregnancy and parental Leave
The right to strike
Anti-discrimination rules at work
Overtime pay
Health and safety rules
The 40 hour work week
Worker’s compensation for on-the-job injuries
Employment Insurance
Pensions
Public education!
Collective bargaining rights
Wrongful termination laws
Whistleblower protection laws
Anti-sexual harassment laws
Holiday pay

Unions even help nonunionized workers get better pay and benefits. Here's how.
Unions have a substantial impact on the compensation and work lives of both unionized and non-unionized workers. This report presents current data on unions’ effect on wages, fringe benefits, total compensation, pay inequality, and workplace protections.

Some of the conclusions are:

Unions raise wages of unionized workers by roughly 20% and raise compensation, including both wages and benefits, by about 28%.

Unions reduce wage inequality because they raise wages more for low- and middle-wage workers than for higher-wage workers, more for blue-collar than for white-collar workers, and more for workers who do not have a college degree.

Strong unions set a pay standard that nonunion employers follow. For example, a high school graduate whose workplace is not unionized but whose industry is 25% unionized is paid 5% more than similar workers in less unionized industries.

The impact of unions on total nonunion wages is almost as large as the impact on total union wages.
The most sweeping advantage for unionized workers is in fringe benefits. Unionized workers are more likely than their nonunionized counterparts to receive paid leave, are approximately 18% to 28% more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and are 23% to 54% more likely to be in employer-provided pension plans.

Unionized workers receive more generous health benefits than nonunionized workers. They also pay 18% lower health care deductibles and a smaller share of the costs for family coverage. In retirement, unionized workers are 24% more likely to be covered by health insurance paid for by their employer.
Unionized workers receive better pension plans. Not only are they more likely to have a guaranteed benefit in retirement, their employers contribute 28% more toward pensions.

Unionized workers receive 26% more vacation time and 14% more total paid leave (vacations and holidays).

Unions play a pivotal role both in securing legislated labor protections and rights such as safety and health, overtime, and family/medical leave and in enforcing those rights on the job. Because unionized workers are more informed, they are more likely to benefit from social insurance programs such as unemployment insurance and workers compensation.

thank you, colin kaepernick!

Another awesome athlete protest that I have no time to write about. I can only thank Colin Kaepernick for his courage.

Joy of Sox speaks for me: To Mookie Betts (And Others): The Right To Protest Has Nothing To Do With The Military.

9.03.2016

labour day readers' advisory: books and movies that celebrate labour

I spoke to a customer yesterday who was visiting from Denmark. He described himself as a trade-unionist, and he came to the library, looking for me, to learn about our strike!

He also said he had read a book he loved, and was looking for more like it. He described the book: "by a Canadian author, takes place in Toronto, about the struggles of workers building a viaduct". It is some measure of my Canadian acculuration that before he finished his sentence, I idenfitied Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, an excellent work of historical fiction and labour history.

For the "more like that" question, I immediately thought of The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane, which led me to write this post about historical fiction in general. 

So on the Labour Day weekend, I thought it would be fun to do a little labour-themed readers' advisory. Here's my list.

Fiction
In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje
The Given Day - Dennis Lehane
Ironweed - William Kennedy
The Ink Truck - William Kennedy
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
In Dubious Battle - John Steinbeck
The Jungle - Upton Sinclair
The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver (on my to-read list)
Work Song - Ivan Doig (same)
For the Win - Cory Doctorow
Rivington Street - Meredith Tax

Nonfiction 
There is so much good nonfiction out there, a list of labour-themed nonfiction would be overwhleming. I will just highlight a few.
Triangle - David Von Drehle (I wrote about this here and here; it's my number one pick in this post.)
Fast Food Nation - Eric Schlosser
Nickled and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich
Bait and Switch - Barbara Ehrenreich
Big Trouble - J. Anthony Lukas
Why Unions Matter - Michael D. Yates
Only One Thing Can Save Us - Thomas Geoghegan
Which Side Are You On - Thomas Geoghegan 
And this excellent list from a public service workers' union in the US, which includes fiction, nonfiction, and film.

Film
Matewan
Made in Dagenham
Pride
Jimmy's Hall (Paul Laverty/Ken Loach: see every film they make)
Bound for Glory
Silkwood
Sometimes a Great Notion
Norma Rae
Harlan County, USA
Bread and Roses (more Ken Loach)

Yours?

8.30.2016

in which i test a bit of conventional wisdom and find out it is false: the mystery of roman tuna salad

I've noticed that ideas that I used to blog about, I am now posting on Facebook instead -- a combination of laziness and time pressure. I'm going to try to get the ideas here, first.

Conventional wisdom has it that preparing food at home is less expensive than buying prepared food. I'm not talking about frozen or processed food, but freshly prepared food from a store like Whole Foods, or increasingly, regular supermarkets trying to compete with specialty stores.

Allan and I buy quite a bit of prepared food. With limited time and energy, it's often the tool we reach for to keep healthy eating on track. It's less expensive than eating in a restaurant, and it's more convenient if you're tired and want to stay at home.

I always think we spend far too much on prepared food, especially something I could make myself -- and once did, in the dark ages before Whole Foods came to Mississauga. Of course, you're not comparing the price of prepared food to not eating. You're comparing how much it would cost to make an acceptable substitute yourself versus buying the food already prepared.

So this week I conducted a little experiment. One of the foods I always feel I should be making myself is tuna salad. I buy something Whole Foods calls Roman tuna salad, which is tuna with a lot of different chopped vegetables mixed in -- olives, bell peppers, celery, red onion, parsley, artichokes. (I know about the issues with tuna, the fish. I have not been able to stop eating it.)

I bought Roman tuna salad and noted the price, then added to Allan's grocery shopping list the ingredients I needed for a scaled-down version of this.

I was amazed to discover that the prepared tuna salad from Whole Foods was only slightly more than the cost of the canned tuna alone, with no other ingredients, and no time and effort factored in -- and that was because we happen to stumble on canned tuna "on special". Normally priced, the canned tuna alone would be more expensive than Whole Foods' product!

320 grams of Whole Foods Roman tuna salad = $9.79

360 grams (3 cans) of white tuna packed in water, drained = $8.97, on special
360 grams of the same tuna, normally priced = $12.56

Whole Foods Roman tuna salad:
Buy, eat, enjoy.

My tuna salad:
Open cans of tuna, drain well. Put tuna in mixing bowl, use fork to break into bits.
Wash and dice two ribs of celery
Wash and dice one bell pepper.
Put all ingredients in food processor with blender blade.
Add reduced-fat mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, pepper, and dill.
Blend thoroughly. Transfer to containers.
Wash food processor parts, cutting board, knife, mixing bowl.

Yes, we could buy less expensive tuna. But this is the tuna I eat. The point of this exercise wasn't to see how cheaply one could make tuna salad, but rather to compare the prices as I would experience them.

And yes, I don't have to use a food processor, and I don't have to chop up vegetables, both of which require time and effort. But again, this is the tuna salad I want to eat. Preparing food that I don't enjoy doesn't make much sense.

Way back when, Impudent Strumpet showed that bringing one's lunch from home to work isn't actually less expensive than going out to lunch. In my case (as I say in a comment on that thread), my lunch out always costs at least $10, sometimes more. I know I can bring a less expensive, healthier lunch -- and I like having my lunch with me, not having to spend part of my lunch hour looking for food, waiting in line, and so forth. My meal at work is often dinner, so trying to find inexpensive food is even more challenging.

But this experiment in home-made versus prepared food has been very enlightening. We're going to put a bunch of other prepared food to the test.

8.20.2016

solidarity from scotland to palestine via soccer

At a football (soccer) match between the Scottish Celtic team and an Israeli team, Hapoel Beersheba, hundreds of Celtic fans defied Scottish law to show their solidarity with Palestine and protest the Israeli occupation.

Mondoweiss reports:
There could be serious consequences for Celtic thanks to the protest, carried out in front of Israelis themselves. Fines and closures of their fans seating sections are possible, under UEFA rules. And a 2012 Scottish law against provocative political speech at sporting events makes the flag display an arrestable offense, although authorities reportedly did not take the offending fans into custody. There were dozens of them, photographs show.

Although the flag politics of the region are contrarian, the feelings of political solidarity are real.

“Since at least the late 80’s Palestine flags have been seen at Celtic Park and Celtic fans have shown their support for the Palestinians. Celtic fans have always had a radical history with support for Irish resistance to British rule and it is from there that support for Palestine stems. Also following support for Palestine among other football and sports fans and figures,” reads a Facebook page called Celtic Fans for Palestine, with about 3,300 members.

The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) will weigh what could happen, but it might involve the closing of some of the stands in the stadium for a Champions league game, writes Neil Cameron in the Herald, a Scottish paper, in an opinion piece chiding protesters for risking the forfeiture of other fans tickets. European football carries out collective punishment against fans, apparently.
Watch this beautiful video from AJ+.