11.20.2021

some things i've learned: notes from becoming a better version of myself

"Getting older sucks. You'll see. I didn't feel that way at your age either..." The first time I heard this, I had just turned 30, and I've been hearing it ever since. Well, now I'm 60, and I still don't agree.

I don't hate aging. I don't fear it. I embrace it. 

There are definitely downsides -- and advanced old age can be a terror for many. But the older we get, the better we understand ourselves, the more we know what we want out of life and can focus on how to achieve that. Growing older -- that is, continuing to live -- gives us more opportunity to become a better version of ourselves.

To reinforce this belief, I've always done a kind of mental and emotional stock-taking, a reflection on what I've been learning. Some of the learning was intentional: tackling a mental habit that was causing unhappiness, working on relationships, and the like. Much was in response to lessons life threw at me.

I dug out some old notebooks, and decided to share what I found with wmtc readers. I've organized them by decades of life. And just for fun, I added in italics major life changes as they occurred. I've also omitted a few changes that I deemed too personal for this blog. (I do have boundaries!)

I was thinking I might use something like Piktochart to make this into a timeline.

20s

The biggest project of my 20s was separating from an abusive parent. I did this through therapy, hard work, and steely resolve, with the support of my partner and my other parent. 

Also in my 20s:

Realizing with certainty that I didn't want children

Owning my identity as a writer

Left full-time work; began writing fiction

Began living with my partner

Adopted our first rescue dogs

Writing: young-adult fiction

Paid work: childcare, proofreading, plus many short stints doing other things (data entry, personal assistant to an artist, probably six other things I've forgotten)

Activism: grassroots pro-choice group

30s

In my 30s, I consciously stopped spending time with people just for something to do. Life's too short (and too busy) to spend it with people that bore you and with whom you can't be fully yourself.

It was a big decade:

Owning my writing process, proving myself (to myself) as a writer

Coming out as a rape survivor

Realizing my potential as an activist 

Transforming my relationship into full adulthood: embracing radical acceptance

Recognizing myself on the eating disorder spectrum

Recognizing all-or-nothing thinking

Moved from Brooklyn to Washington Heights

Health issues; finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia

Writing: magazine features, educational videos, teen "high-low" nonfiction, monthly column

Activism: youth centre; public speaking about sexual assault

Paid work: legal document production; writing. Also teaching at youth centre and alternative high school, part of team organizing a March on Washington

40s

Committing to taking better care of my physical health (late 30s-early 40s) 

Learning to let go of conflicts and disagreements: "the power of walking away"

Learning to ask for and accept help

Reducing or eliminating all-or-nothing thinking

Left New York City

Emigrated to Canada

Writing: children's nonfiction books, magazine features, blogging

Activism: abortion access (Haven); war resisters (War Resisters Support Campaign)

Paid work: legal doc-pro, transcription, writing

Graduate school (late 40s)

50s

Realizing my leadership potential, learning how to be an effective leader

Embracing self-forgiveness

Accepting that PTSD is permanent

Recognizing intergenerational trauma in my original family

Still learning how to ask for and accept help

Completed library degree for career change (early 50s)

Moved to the west coast; relocated to remote community on Vancouver Island (late 50s)

Writing: blogging

Activism: labour, trade unionism

Paid work: library worker, librarian, library manager

60s

????

I used to imagine there would be a time when I was "done" -- where there would be a final and finished version of myself. Ha! I'm pretty sure that's called death. I wonder what my 60s will bring.

*  *  *  *

One thing I haven't embraced about aging is the covid-related trend of natural hair colour. In fact, I've doubled down on a bolder look with this purply red. My natural dull brown sprinkled liberally with dull gray? No thank you! I'm helping to keep a stylist employed.

I offer this picture of myself as part of some recent and ongoing learning: trying to be less camera-shy.

11.14.2021

what i'm reading: poisoner in chief: sidney gottlieb and the cia search for mind control -- plus a few thoughts on conspiracy theories

Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction. It is impeccably researched -- nearly every page yields another revelation -- but written in a clear, accessible style, a true page-turner. The story it unfolds is utterly fascinating. It is also horrifying, nauseating, and nightmarish. If it were fiction, you would never believe it. 

You might know something about MK-ULTRA and the secret histories of the CIA. 

Perhaps you've heard of Operation Paperclip, through which the United States rescued Nazi war criminals, gave them new identities and cushy jobs in NASA, IBM, and elsewhere. The excellent (but sadly, single-season) series "Hunters" on Prime introduced many to Paperclip.

You may be aware of Frank Olson, a CIA employee who was unknowingly dosed with LSD, which led directly to his death. Most recently, Errol Morris' "Wormwood" deals with this, as have many "60 Minutes"-style investigations. 

I knew these general outlines. That turned out to be the proverbial tip of a very large and hideously evil iceberg.

From the early 1950s to at least the mid-1970s, a tiny group of men within the CIA, led by Gottlieb, conducted research into biological and chemical weapons, experimenting on human subjects who lives were considered expendable. 

Without informed consent from their subjects, and usually without the subjects' knowledge at all, these CIA men tortured people (and to a lesser extent, animals) by feeding them LSD and applying other techniques of psychological torture. This went on for decades and involved thousands of vulnerable people -- drug users, prison inmates, psychiatric patients. Gottlieb also invented deadly new poisons and ways to secretly administer them, with the goal of assassinating foreign leaders. The program was known as MK-ULTRA.

As one of these pseudo-scientists later admitted, in MK-ULTRA the phrase "unwitting subjects" was a redundancy. At best the subjects were coerced. In one long-running and horrific episode, prisoners in a federal penitentiary were fed LSD daily for 15 months. Their participation was secured with the promise of heroin -- near-constant LSD use in exchange for a fix. Other victims of MK-ULTRA were psychiatric patients who believed they were accessing legitimate mental health treatment. Almost every victim was left damaged. Many lives were destroyed. Many people died.

Dosing unsuspecting citizens with LSD was only part of the fun. Gottlieb developed untraceable poisons that would cause death days after ingestion, so as to avert suspicion. The CIA had planned to use one of these poisons to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the elected prime minister of newly-independent Democratic Republic of Congo -- but Belgium assassinated Lumumba before the CIA plans could be carried out. Gottlieb created poison-laced cigars for the purpose of assassinating Fidel Castro, but the cigars never made it to Castro's compound.

The MK-ULTRA crew released clouds of gas into the fog over the San Francisco Bay -- rehearsal for an anthrax attack that might one day be unleashed on another country. They worked with a violent, drug-addicted organized-crime boss, who procured sex workers, to observe (through a one-way mirror) the effects of LSD on sex. They performed thousands of dangerous, useless drug experiments, often on the most vulnerable people.

The men of MK-ULTRA -- and the predecessor operations, called Artichoke and Bluebird --  operated with absolute carte blanche and with zero oversight. They spent whatever they wanted, to do whatever they wanted. 

There was one singular justification for all these actions: the fear of Communism. During the height of the Cold War, these CIA men believed that the Soviet Union had unlocked the secrets of mind control, and that this asymmetrical knowledge was a dire threat to the US. To them, this torture masquerading as scientific experiments was vital to national security -- indeed, to national survival. 

There was absolutely no evidence that the Soviets were doing anything like this -- and none has ever been discovered. The beliefs of Gottlieb and his men were based on fiction and fear, which mushroomed into elaborate fantasies. And those fevered fantasies were used as justification for whatever schemes they dreamed up.

No one in MK-ULTRA was ever punished. Indeed, many were honoured and celebrated and enjoyed great privilege. Gottlieb later fancied himself a persecuted victim.

One often hears that some heinous practice must be understood in context of the times. Domestic violence. Slavery. Child labour. It was a different time! You have to understand! We didn't know it was wrong! I call bullshit. Of course the men of MK-ULTRA knew what they were doing was wrong, thus the need for extreme secrecy. In declassified documents, MK-ULTRA insiders note that secrecy was essential, because their actions might be received badly by the media and the public. Yeah.

Kinzer is a brilliant writer, who creates gripping nonfiction. I've read his book Overthrow, which tells stories of US-led "regime change" from Hawaii to Iraq, and I'm interested in several other of his titles. Poisoner in Chief is a triumph of research. Gottlieb destroyed his MK-ULTRA files -- itself a federal crime -- but for indefatigable researchers, traces remain. Kinzer steers clear of all woo-woo -- unlike Gottlieb, whose experiments included the use of magic tricks, psychics, and post-hypnotic suggestions, "Manchurian Candidate"-style.

Kinzer concludes the book with a moral and ethical reckoning of Gottlieb and MK-ULTRA, and its toxic legacy. In its stated goals -- mind control -- MK-ULTRA was a failure. Gottlieb discovered that a mind could be destroyed, but it could not be replaced. In another, terrible sense, MK-ULTRA was a great "success": the techniques developed through this program became torture protocols employed by the US in Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Guantanamo Bay. 

Kinzer makes it very clear: there is a direct chain of events and rationalization from the war criminals like Kurt Blome and Shiro Ishii (see below), through Sidney Gottlieb, all the way to Abu Ghraib. There are now laws mandating government oversight of the CIA, but those nominal provisions can always be trumped by the magic words: national security

Poisoner in Chief is also a biography of Gottlieb, an unusual man who chose an extremely unusual life. The child of Holocaust survivors, raised in an Orthodox Jewish household in the Bronx, Gottlieb struggled with a club foot and a severe stutter. He never fit in with the CIA brand of starched shirts and WASP pedigrees. For many decades he lived what would later be called "off the grid," embracing a simple life that included raising goats, meditating, and folk dancing. All while dreaming up new ways to surreptitiously test LSD on vulnerable people.

Content warnings galore

Many episodes in this book are difficult to read and to think about. 

The early chapters of Poisoner In Chief document biological, medical, and chemical war crimes, as context for what would come next. Naturally I am aware of Nazi human experimentation. However, I had never heard of Shiro Ishii, a sadistic Japanese scientist who led the torture and slaughter of tens of thousands of Chinese people in the remote region of Mongolia. Kinzer gives a brief warning before describing in two concise paragraphs the most heinous human experimentation and torture I've ever read about. 

The US helped most of these war criminals either set up shop in the US or escape to South America.

A few thoughts on conspiracy theories

Reading this book brought to mind many thoughts about the use and misuse of the words "conspiracy theory".

For decades, the CIA conducted secret mind-control experiments involving feeding LSD to hundreds of unsuspecting American citizens. If you didn't know this was true, would you believe it? It certainly sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory.

I've written about this before: "conspiracy theory" has become an elastic label used to discredit nearly anything that seems outlandish and improbable -- and anything that questions an official version of events. I am most interested in this in the context of the terrorist attacks of September 11.

To be sure, there are many wacky ideas that are pure bunk. But read this book. Then tell me, is hiring a few fanatics to fly planes into buildings -- or to look the other way while those plans were made -- so much worse than what was done through Bluebird, Artichoke and MK-ULTRA?

September 11 was a much greater public spectacle, and that spectacle was used to justify untold horrors and abuses, both within the US and around the world. MK-ULTRA was conducted literally and figuratively behind closed doors. The latter is a proven fact. People who question the former are ridiculed as "truthers" and ignored. (A bit of Orwellian irony: the word truth as a pejorative.) 

The most common response to the 9/11 truth movement -- now thoroughly discredited for the  mainstream -- is summed up by this statement: "They wouldn't do that"

"They" have spiked breakfast cereal in orphanages with radioactive material. "They" have released clouds of gas into the fog over San Francisco. "They" maintain secret sites around the globe where people are tortured, and their bodies disposed of. "They" have kidnapped and assassinated elected leaders and replaced them with governments more sympathetic to US business interests. "They" have done all this and much more.

Does it mean that every government theory, no matter how far-fetched, is true? Of course not!

Does this mean that all or most US elected officials are involved in such dastardly doings? Of course not! 

But do small, secret groups within the government organize shocking and grievous events? They do. 

And when official stories, seen in context, make no sense, should they be questioned and examined? 

Since the journalist Seymour Hersh first revealed MK-ULTRA in 1974, there is now supposedly more federal oversight of the CIA. But the same imperatives that justified the earlier secrecy -- whether genuine, invented, believed, or some combination of those -- has not gone away. Then it was the fear of Communism. Now it is the fear of terrorism. 

On the face of it, saying that some people within the US government had knowledge of the attacks of September 11 before they occurred, and that people deep within some faction of the CIA were involved in the planning of the attacks (or paid the people who did the planning) seems bizarre and crazy. But once one confronts the mountains of evidence with an open mind, and sees the massive inconsistencies and elisions in the several official stories, it seems anything but. They wouldn't do that is not much of an argument.

Victims of MK-ULTRA, such as Frank Olson's family and James "Whitey" Bulger, were disparaged and ridiculed. But they were right. 

I wrote about this in-depth here: two words, part one, two words, part two. (This is dated one month before all the comments are wiped out!) 

You also may be interested in this wmtc series "a 9/11 discussion". (Two notes: former screen names L-girl and redsock have been changed to "laura k" and "allan". And the comment discussion here was amazing... and is now gone.)


A quote from the above:
To me, at this point in history, knowing all that we do, to say, "Sure they did this, and this, and this, and this (on and on on), but there's no way they would do that" -- and in saying so deny (or refuse to credit) the mountains of very well founded suspicions and/or evidence, instead choosing to believe that thousands of coincidences all took place at the same time -- and do you know that even the official govt version of 9/11 has changed several times? -- is beyond naive.

9/11 is the singular event from which their entire agenda has flowed and upon which it has been justified -- and by which hundreds of millions of dollars of profit are being reaped. For that reason alone -- not to mention justice for the victims and survivors -- it deserves particular and impartial scrutiny. But it hasn't gotten that. The govt has done everything in its power to prevent impartial parties from scrutinizing it.

And good people of all stripes dismiss any govt complicity as impossible, because it's too terrible to think about. And it is, but the truth has to come first. I don't think you're a Pollyanna, because I shared your views at one point. But the more I read, the more inescapable the conclusion became.



11.11.2021

11.11 readers' advisory meets "at your library" in the north island eagle

Celebrate and Commemorate Remembrance Day with a Good Book or Three

Readers have told me they enjoy the themed booklists I’ve shared. Remembrance Day is an occasion to share another list. The Great War, as it was known at the time, has inspired countless authors, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters. Many authors have used the horrors of World War I as a lens to explore issues of war and the scars it leaves on all involved. Here are some excellent titles that may be of interest.

Title: Regeneration, The Ghost Road, The Eye in the Door (The Regeneration Trilogy)
Author: Pat Barker
What you’ll find: These novels, written in the 1990s by British novelist Pat Barker, were inspired by the real-life memoirs of soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon. They are widely thought to be among the best historical fiction of our time.

Title: A Farewell to Arms
Author: Ernest Hemingway
What you’ll find: This 1929 novel is a classic for a reason. It is told in the first-person by an American serving as a medic in Italy, and explores war, love, courage, resistance, and so much more. A rich and deeply moving book.

Title: All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
What you’ll find: This is often called both the greatest war novel of all time, and the greatest anti-war novel of all time. It is even more poignant for being told from the German point of view. 

Title: Birdsong
Author: Sebastian Faulk
What you’ll find: This family saga follows two parallel plots: a British soldier at the front in Amiens, and his granddaughter who is trying to understand his experiences, 60 years later. This book is lushly romantic, yet also deeply realistic.

Title: The Absolutist
Author: John Boyne
What you’ll find: Set in the trenches, this novel explores passion, jealousy, heroism, and betrayal. It’s chock full of tension and suspense, and a very surprising ending.

Title: The Winter Soldier
Author: Daniel Mason
What you’ll find: A young medical student enlists in the war effort, expecting heroism. Instead, he finds a desolate, freezing outpost, and decisions that will haunt him for a lifetime. A gripping saga of war, medicine, love, and redemption. 

Title: Fear
Author: Gabriel Chevallier
What you’ll find: This gripping novel is based on the author’s own experiences as a nineteen-year-old soldier in France. First published in 1939 – and banned until 1950 – it speaks to the vast gulf between the public, official view of war and the lived experiences of those who suffer through it. 

Title: At Night All Blood Is Black
Author: David Diop
What you'll find: This story of a Sengalese soldier serving with the French forces, explores some surprising themes of vengeance, responsibility, and shame, along with racism and colonialism. It is unsparing and very graphic, also brutally honest and riveting.

Title: A Duty to the Dead
Author: Charles Todd
What you’ll find: This is the first book in a series featuring Bess Crawford, whose belief in honor and responsibility leads her to volunteer as a battlefield nurse. Her promise to fulfill a soldier’s dying wishes draws Bess into murder, intrigue, and tragedy, and tests her determination and courage.

-------

See also:

11 people on war

11 anti-war books

11 anti-war books part 2

11 anti-war songs

Robert Fisk: Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?

10.31.2021

what i'm reading: harlem shuffle, exciting new fiction by colson whitehead

I've been reading Colson Whitehead since his debut novel, The Intuitionist, caught the attention of critics in 1999. With every successive title -- each entirely different than the previous one -- I've loved and admired his writing more. This blog is full of posts about Whitehead's work and how much I love it.*

When Whitehead burst into popular consciousness with the masterpiece The Underground Railroad and the even more remarkable The Nickel Boys, I had one of those silly proud moments, when the world suddenly discovers your private fandom. Here is a truly great writing talent with tremendous versatility, discipline, and courage, and now he is being recognized on the scale he deserves. Bravo!

Now, after the two disturbing, hard-hitting, novelistic explorations of American history from a Black perspective, Whitehead has returned to doing what he did previously: dazzling readers with yet a different genre. 

I am the perfect audience for this book. I don't read genre fiction, but I love literary detective, crime, spy, or legal thrillers -- the genre plus something more. Graham Greene, Donald Westlake, Patricia Highsmith. I haven't read a huge number of these, but I adore them. 

Then there's New York. For a time I read so much New York City historical fiction that I overdosed and had to kick -- until City On Fire, my favourite fiction in many years, brought me back. Harlem Shuffle indulged my love for historical New York. 

I also love books with a strong sense of place. Late-1950s, early-1960s Harlem is practically a character in Harlem Shuffle

All that, plus it's written by one of my all-time favourite writers. So clearly, take this rave review with a heaping spoon of loving bias. You may well read it and think, very nice, but... what's all the fuss about? That's fair. I say that about fiction all the time. 

But if you read it, and you do love it, I hope you'll put Sag Harbor, Zone One, and Apex Hides the Hurt on your list, too.

* * * *

I never read reviews of books that I know I'm going to read anyway. I love to start a book completely fresh, without even reading the jacket blurbs, so it unfolds exactly as the author intended. Now that I've read Harlem Shuffle, I'm skimming some reviews. This first paragraph from The Guardian is a beauty.

For more than 20 years Colson Whitehead has delivered novels notable for cultural satire, racial allegory, genre expansion and quirkiness: The Intuitionist, Sag Harbor, Zone One, The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer #1), The Nickel Boys (Pulitzer #2). In his eighth novel, Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead offers a literary crime saga that is as delicious as it is nutritious, a much lighter meal than his previous two novels, which emerge from the real-life atrocities of slavery and a brutal reform school in the American south. Whether in high literary form or entertaining, page-turner mode, the man is simply incapable of writing a bad book.

I also loved this bit from The New York Times review.

Whitehead's sweet, sweaty, authoritative, densely peopled portrait of a Harlem in near perpetual summer is the most successful part of the book. Had I not known Whitehead was a talented shape-shifter, I — as an outsider to Harlem — would have believed he had only ever written about this setting. 

 --------

* In chronological order:

great writers on new york, July 15, 2004 (one of my earliest posts!)

more from colson whitehead, same day!

colson whitehead writes in brooklyn, March 3, 2008

what i'm reading: apex hides the hurt, December 21, 2010

what i'm reading: sag harbor by colson whitehead, March 3, 2012

what i'm reading: zone one by colson whitehead, July 15, 2012

what i'm reading: invisible man meets the zombies of zone one, a little lit crit, July 27, 2012,  with a little follow-up at the end of this post, July 28, 2012

what i'm reading: john henry days by colson whitehead, September 15, 2012

what i'm reading: the underground railroad by colson whitehead, October 29, 2016

what i'm reading: the nickel boys by colson whitehead, September 5, 2019

(And I've just noticed that in the 2019 post above, I also gathered all these posts!)

10.23.2021

"at your library" in the north island eagle: commemorate remembrance day with a good book or three

Celebrate and commemorate Remembrance Day with a good book or three

Readers have told me they enjoy the themed booklists I’ve shared. Remembrance Day is an occasion to share another list. The Great War, as it was known at the time, has inspired countless authors, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters. Many authors have used the horrors of World War I as a lens to explore issues of war and the scars it leaves on all involved. Here are some excellent titles that may be of interest.

Title: Regeneration, The Ghost Road, The Eye in the Door (The Regeneration Trilogy)
Author: Pat Barker
What you’ll find: These novels, written in the 1990s by British novelist Pat Barker, were inspired by the real-life memoirs of soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon. They are widely thought to be among the best historical fiction of our time.

Title: A Farewell to Arms
Author: Ernest Hemingway
What you’ll find: This 1929 novel is a classic for a reason. It is told in the first-person by an American serving as a medic in Italy, and explores war, love, courage, resistance, and so much more. A rich and deeply moving book.

Title: All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
What you’ll find: This is often called both the greatest war novel of all time, and the greatest anti-war novel of all time. It is even more poignant for being told from the German point of view. 

Title: Birdsong
Author: Sebastian Faulk
What you’ll find: This family saga follows two parallel plots: a British soldier at the front in Amiens, and his granddaughter who is trying to understand his experiences, 60 years later. This book is lushly romantic, yet also deeply realistic.

Title: The Absolutist
Author: John Boyne
What you’ll find: Set in the trenches, this novel explores passion, jealousy, heroism, and betrayal. It’s chock full of tension and suspense, and a very surprising ending.

Title: The Winter Soldier
Author: Daniel Mason
What you’ll find: A young medical student enlists in the war effort, expecting heroism. Instead, he finds a desolate, freezing outpost, and decisions that will haunt him for a lifetime. A gripping saga of war, medicine, love, and redemption. 

Title: Fear
Author: Gabriel Chevallier
What you’ll find: This gripping novel is based on the author’s own experiences as a nineteen-year-old soldier in France. First published in 1939 – and banned until 1950 – it speaks to the vast gulf between the public, official view of war and the lived experiences of those who suffer through it. 

Title: At Night All Blood Is Black
Author: David Diop
What you’ll find: This story of a Sengalese soldier serving with the French forces, explores some surprising themes of vengeance, responsibility, and shame, along with racism and colonialism. It is unsparing and very graphic, also brutally honest and riveting.

Title: A Duty to the Dead
Author: Charles Todd
What you’ll find: This is the first book in a series featuring Bess Crawford, whose belief in honor and responsibility leads her to volunteer as a battlefield nurse. Her promise to fulfill a soldier’s dying wishes draws Bess into murder, intrigue, and tragedy, and tests her determination and courage.

"at your library" in the north island eagle: halloween is spooktacular at your library

Halloween Is Spooktacular at Your Library

Halloween is almost here, and with almost everyone in the North Island vaccinated, people will be exchanging their everyday masks for spooky ones, making costumes, and trick-or-treating again. Your library is part of the Halloween fun.

Haunted Vancouver Island for Kids (author reading)

Tweens, teens, and the “senior kids” will want to tune in on October 26 for a special virtual program: Haunted Vancouver Island for Kids. 

Award-winning author Shanon Sinn will host a special young people’s edition of “The Haunting of Vancouver Island”. Sinn will introduce some of VI’s favourite ghosts and supernatural beings – and reveal the truth behind their legends. Sinn is a celebrated local author who belongs to the British Columbia Ghosts & Hauntings Research Society and Paranormal Studies and Inquiries Canada, and researches hauntings and supernatural events. 

This special virtual event takes place 6:30-7:30 pm, and you can join on any device. To get the Zoom link, email kids@virl.bc.ca. If you need help getting started, ask at your favourite library branch. Sinn’s visit is intended for people 9 years old and up.

Spooky Scavenger Hunt

For the younger kids, we have a Spooky Scavenger Hunt in the children’s area of every library branch. Every child who participates is entered in a draw to win a book prize.

We know kids love scavenger hunts, but did you know they’re a fantastic literacy builder? Scavenger hunts teach kids to recognize shapes, colours, and word, and build memory and problem-solving skills. 

If you’re not a frequent library user, the Spooky Scavenger Hunt is a great excuse to stop by. Your little one can have some educational fun, and you can pick up a book and a DVD. It’s a free and easy way to add a little something special to your day.

Halloween Phone Holders with 3D printing

Did you know that VIRL offers 3D printing, available to everyone with a library card? 

If you’ve never heard of 3D printing, or you’re curious to try it, the Halloween Phone Holder challenge is a great time to start. You’ll need to sign up with TinkerCAD (www.tinkercad.com), a free website that teaches you how to design files for 3D printing. It’s not as difficult as it sounds! 

After you design your Halloween creation, submit it to VIRL’s Creativity Commons for printing. If you’re interested in this but don’t know where to start, contact Creativity Commons at cc@virl.bc.ca or 1-877-415-8475. 

Halloween Storytimes at Port Hardy Library

This month storytimes at Port Hardy will have a Halloween theme. Join us any morning – or every morning! – at 10:00, Tuesday through Saturday, for an in-person storytime. Storytimes build literacy skills in so many ways, and it’s a great way to get into the habit of making the library a part of your child’s life. 

Spooky books and movies for all ages

Reading spooky stories and watching slightly scary movies is a Halloween tradition at many homes. Your library is your go-to for a fun family event. 

Log in to our the VIRL website at home, or visit your branch in person, to order Halloween-themed books and DVDs. If you have internet at home, Kanopy Kids is chocked full of high-quality kids’ entertainment. Find Kanopy at virl.bc.ca > read watch listen > streaming movies TV & DVDs. You can watch on any device, and it’s free with your library card. For help getting started, visit or call your favourite VIRL branch.

"at your library" in the north island eagle: back-to-school: your library can help

Back-to-School: Your Library Can Help

With the kids back to school, both parents and students need all the help they can get. Your library has a wealth of resources to help families succeed.

The Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) has a wealth of e-resources that will come in handy for all types of research and reports, at every grade level. 

Solaro is a great resource for test preparation and study, specifically designed for the BC curriculum. On Solaro, you can find math, science, and language arts for grades 3 through 12. It’s very customizable, so you can tailor your study to exactly what you need. Homeschool families and students in traditional classrooms will both find Solaro fun and useful. 

Getting set up with Solaro is a two step process. First, find it through the VIRL website and enter your library card number. You will be assigned a username and password. Then, download the Solaro app, put in that username information, and you’re good to go. 

Solaro isn’t the only BC-centric learning tool that your library offers. The Encyclopedia of British Columbia is the definitive reference work on the province. It contains more than 4,000 entries, plus more than 1,500 photos, maps, charts, and tables, plus audio and video clips. It’s reliable and authoritative – a real go-to for research.

KnowBC contains more specialized information about our beautiful province – birds, plants, shells, and marine life. There are fascinating articles about hidden histories, such as the first Black pioneers of the province, the BC labour movement, and the history of First Nations fishing in this region.

Explora for Kids is a kid-friendly research database, featuring a huge range of topics and subjects. It’s great for homework, reports, and simply to answer questions. Younger kids – grades K through 3 – will want to use PebbleGo. Both are reliable, trustworthy sources.

Find all of these by visiting virl.bc.ca > learn > all databases, or learn > kids. 

Teens have even more choices when it comes to e-resources. Visit virl.bc.ca > learn > teens > homework help for teens. Whether a teen is exploring a topic they’re passionate about or researching a project, they’ll find resources here.

Parents need support, too! Your library has books to offer guidance, suggestions, advice, and support to help parents succeed in their most important jobs. Whether it’s homework help, anxiety, identity issues, bullying, decisions about college or university, health and nutrition, or just about anything else you can think of, your library is your go-to source for information. Let us help you find support. It’s confidential, and it’s free. Give us a try.

"at your library" in the north island eagle: literacy skills are essential in our world

Literacy Is All Around Us

September is Literacy Month, a time to recognize and celebrate all the many ways literacy improves and enhances our lives.

As you go about your day, you use different forms of literacy all the time. Looking on Google Maps for directions. Following a recipe. Planting a garden. Reading food labels in the grocery store. Choosing a new tool for a project. Paying your bills. Taking the proper dose of medication. Looking on the internet for how to fix a problem – then watching a video and following directions. Every one of these tasks, and a million more, involve multiple literacies.

Of course to do any these things, you must be able to read and write. In our society, being literate is not optional. No matter how a person earns a living, having basic literacy skills is a must. But traditional literacy – reading and writing – is only the beginning.

Numerical literacy is the ability to use numbers for every day life – to read a price list and understand how much something costs, to make a budget, to understand a timecard at work.

Digital literacy means being able to use technology to access information, solve problems, and make your life easier. 

Together, these three literacies form a foundation of core literacy skills that every person in the 21st century needs. 

Contrary to what many people think, digital literacy is not a yes-or-no, on-or-off proposition. There’s a very wide spectrum of digital literacy, and most people fall somewhere in the vast middle: they have some limited skills. A mark of high digital literacy is our comfort level with learning new digital skills. Do you enjoy and embrace new technologies, or do find new technology scary and confusing? If you fall into the second category, you have a lot of company! 

Often we encounter stereotypes around literacy. Young people are supposedly all tech savvy, and all seniors are supposed to be baffled by technology. Men are supposed to be more numerically literate – “better at math” – than women. Guess what? False, false, false! 

Many young people lack access to technology. They know how to use their phones, but can they use Word to create a resume, can they download an e-book? On the other hand, many seniors thrive in the digital world. (Apparently as of my last birthday, I’m now a senior myself!)

As a librarian, I have a special interest in two other forms of literacy: health and media.

Health literacy means being able to communicate with health-care providers, follow instructions for medications, and find quality health information, to name just a few examples. The Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) has some great health resources, and we’d love to help you use them.

Media Literacy means being aware of and understanding the messages we get from all kinds of media – internet news, TV shows, movies, videogames, magazines. Someone who is media literate understands the difference between an advertisement that’s trying to sell something and impartial information. They can distinguish a solid source from a scam. It’s not always easy to do!

It’s not hard to see how digital literacy, media literacy, and health literacy are inter-related. How do we find good information? How do we separate facts from opinions? What media can we trust? Librarians can help you evaluate sources and sort through fact from fiction.

When you want to know more about the world, to learn a new skill, or pursue a new hobby, your library is the perfect place to start. The library is your home for all things literacy. We can suggest resources to get you started. And of course, our help is always free of charge.

"at your library" in the north island eagle: great things are happening at your libraries

Great Things Are Happening At Your Libraries

Our North Island branches of the Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) are back to our full pre-covid hours, and back to normal – or better.

Port Hardy new hours and programs

Have you heard the good news? The Port Hardy Library is now has longer – and better – open hours. 

The new hours mean:

– continuous hours – no more closures for lunch or dinner,

– open two nights each week, instead of one – but no late opening on those days,

– open all day on Friday, and

– a simplified schedule that should be easier to keep track of.

These are all things that you, our customers, have asked for. 

With the new open hours and increased staff hours, we’re now offering a storytime every day. Parents, grandparents, and caregivers can come to the library any day (Tue-Sat) at 10:00 and participate in a storytime. 

Some of the sessions will be led by library staff, and some by “Mother Goose”, thanks to the Mt. Waddington Family Literacy Society. Storytimes are one of the best ways to build literacy, so I hope you will join us. 

We’ll also be offering programming for adults every Wednesday night. There will be a game night, a movie night, a book club, and one Wednesday called “something different”. That might be an author visit, a talk or presentation, a craft night, adult Lego night, to name just a few ideas. 

I’ll be leading a book club on the last Wednesday of every month, so if that appeals to you, get in touch!

For all these programs, social distancing will be in effect, and continued mask use is greatly appreciated.

Port Alice refurbishment

If you use the library in Port Alice, you’re in for a treat. Work is about to begin on a branch refurbishment. The library will be getting a long-awaited facelift – new flooring, new paint, a new information desk, beautiful new mobile shelving, and some fun new seating in the children’s area. We hope to host a Customer Appreciation Day to celebrate the new look.

The brand-new Woss

Have you checked out the beautiful new Woss branch yet? It’s a knockout. There’s a lounge area for reading and relaxing, a dedicated children’s space, and a meeting room that members of the community can book free of charge. 

A library customer has generously donated their time and resources to planting a garden that will beautify the library exterior for years to come. 

Next time you’re driving down island, stop by! Sayward also has a new branch; staff there would be happy to show you around. 

Port McNeill and Sointula

Changes at our Sointula and Port McNeill branches are less dramatic, but still very beneficial for those communities. A Mother Goose from the Mt. Waddington Family Literacy Society will be leading storytimes in both communities; check with your branch for details. 

Sointula will be getting a new exterior sign and an interior paint job. Port McNeill has beautiful new cabinets created by a local craftsperson, and some important behind-the-scenes improvements. Both branches are now open for public computer use, too.

We’d love to hear from you

If you have ideas for your library, we’d love to hear from you. Whether it’s a program idea, a book club theme you’d like to see, a research project you want to start, or you need some tech help, we’re here to help.

[Sidebar with new Port Hardy Library hours, an increase of more than 40%!]

10.11.2021

what i'm reading: john steinbeck and me

I recently read Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Souder, part of my new-found interest in biographies over the past few years.* 

Instead of reviewing the book, I thought I would write about the presence of John Steinbeck's writing in my life -- its history, its influence, the connection I feel. 

The book itself is quite good, but I assume it's of interest only to readers of John Steinbeck. Possibly to people who like biographies of writers? I don't know. Personally, I'd be very unlikely to read a biography of a writer whose work I didn't read or didn't like. If the topic is a good match for you, it is a good book.

For me, it's an obvious choice: my shiny new hardcover copy was a birthday present from my partner. 

Steinbeck's writing has had a huge affect on me. It influenced my desire to travel, my need to write, and my worldview, from an early age. 

To travel, to write, and to fight

My introduction to John Steinbeck was Travels with Charley, which I read either in late junior high or early high school. We didn't have a huge number of books in our house, and I read everything we owned. My parents had a paperback ("pocketbook") edition of Travels with Charley, and I read it, more than once.

I'm sure I would have loved to travel without this book. But Travels with Charley awakened a desire for a particular form of travel. I dreamt of wandering and roaming backroads, living with no fixed address, living so lightly that everything you need would fit in a simple van. It's something I've always wanted, and yet have never done. I've made (or at least tried to make) many of my dreams come true, but this one -- incompatible with so many other things I wanted -- has remained a fantasy. 

Still, travel has always been a huge passion of mine, and I can credit this book with its awakening.

Interestingly, the other voracious travelers in my life were similarly influenced -- my mother by reading James Michener, and my intrepid grandmother, from watching "I Spy"! (My brother is also an avid traveler, but I don't know if he credits anything in particular.)

Travels with Charley also made me want to write. There is only one other book that I can say that about: S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, my favourite book for countless years, and still so close to my heart, it aches to think of it. Although I'm sure my need to write is innate and was not bestowed upon me, these two books were the spark.

And finally, there is my worldview. 

Both my parents were very progressive. They would have called themselves liberals in those days, but their politics were socialist. My father represented union workers his entire working life; my mother was a proud member of the teachers' union. They were pro civil rights, anti war, hated Nixon, revered people like Cesar Chavez and Eugene V. Debs. (Neither of them ever became conservative, by the way. My mother will still rail against Trump at any opportunity. The only time I ever missed my father was watching Obama's inauguration. He would have loved to have seen it.)

I've always been interested in social issues -- literally all my life, as soon as I was able to understand anything -- and ready to jump on a soapbox at the slightest provocation. I remember having to write an essay in my high school Spanish class, and I wrote against capital punishment. The teacher said that I always took on temas muy importantes. I was embarrassed, because I didn't know what other kinds of issues there were.

So, would I have been involved in social justice had I not read The Grapes of Wrath? Sure. It was in me. But when I read the book one summer while in high school, I suddenly understood my worldview in a more profound way, and I embraced it. The way the story moved me was unique in my experience -- and would remain so for a long, long time.

What moved me wasn't the story of poverty and the dustbowl, or the bigotry the migrant families encountered, or the conditions they endured. It was how people organized to collectively better their lives. It was how the people with the least, were most willing to share, while those with the most hoarded their wealth and purposefully kept others in poverty. It was thinking about what was possible when people organized around a cause and fought for justice. 

It may seem corny or melodramatic today -- or maybe it doesn't, I don't care either way -- but when I first read Tom Joad's "I'll be there" speech, I knew that's what I wanted for myself. Today, it still makes me weep, and take measure of my life.

I've read The Grapes of Wrath three times. It is one of a small number of books that I periodically re-read.** It has never lost its profound meaning to me. 

Why Steinbeck matters

While still in high school, I read most of Steinbeck's shorter novels, and his other "big" book, East of Eden (which I've now learned was his favourite of his own work). Later, as an English major in university, I saw that Steinbeck's writing was not highly valued, at least not in that era. I remember a classmate who was taking a Steinbeck and Faulkner course remarking that Faulkner was so much "better" than Steinbeck, because Faulkner was more complex, more difficult to understand, and Steinbeck was almost embarrassingly straightforward.

That sums up nicely why Steinbeck is important, and why I believe he's worth reading: his accessibility. Steinbeck's language, his meaning, his purpose are available to most readers. You don't need anyone to explain Steinbeck to you. His writing is elegant and profound, but it's not obscure.

I do like many writers whose work is less accessible. But I value accessibility in writing very highly, especially in political work. I may read many writers who "preach to the converted," but the writers I admire most try to reach new minds.

Pilgrimages

In 1988, Allan and I went to California on our first real vacation together -- San Francisco, a drive down the coast, then to Yosemite National Park. It was a magical trip in so many ways, and one of our stops was the John Steinbeck Library in Salinas. There was a small but wonderful exhibit of Steinbeck memorabilia, including the handwritten first page of The Grapes of Wrath. This visit meant so much to me, more so for having a partner who would understand my desire to go.

In 2002, we did a west-coast baseball trip, driving the Pacific Coast from the Olympic peninsula in Washington State to the border of Mexico. We saw games in five parks; only the Padres weren't playing at home. This time, we visited the National Steinbeck Center, which opened in Salinas in 1998. It's a great place, and I highly recommend a visit if you're nearby. However, the manuscripts that I found so thrilling are now available to researchers by appointment only. I am so fortunate to have seen the little exhibit in the Salinas library before it was subsumed into a bigger, sleeker museum.

Steinbeck reading plan

Mad at the World reminded me of Steinbeck's many other novels, most of which I read a very long time ago, likely in high school. Like my favourite contemporary writer, Colson Whitehead, every one of Steinbeck's books is different. I'm thinking I will re-read the shorter novels in between my other reads for a while. I don't know how this will work. I'll let you know. 

 * People whose biographies I have read in the past few years: Frederick Douglass, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, Galileo, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louise Fitzhugh, Janis Joplin, a dual biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (not my first biography of either man), plus graphic novel biographies of Ali, Emma Goldman, and the graphic adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.

** The others are 1984, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. Helprin turned out to be a conservative hack, so I doubt I'll go another round with WT (which is just as well, I've read it twice). City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg will likely pull me back for another round.

10.04.2021

gardening and games, but not piano: three things going on with me

Maybe next year: borscht.
It was not a total #gardenfail

You may recall that I tried to plant my little gardenette, as we used to do in southern Ontario, here in northern Vancouver Island. I was not successful.

The area we cleared became well grown over with weeds, and that was fine for now. 

Months later, to my surprise, I spotted some red stalks among the green. Beets! One beet plant survived and grew. I harvested one tiny beet. 

While I was showing the beet to Allan, he spotted a tomato plant growing amid the ruin. This gives me hope! As baseball fans have said for generations: wait 'til next year!

#pianofail?

I began piano lessons in March 2020, right after the covid shutdown went into effect. I practiced diligently and consistently for 16 months. As long as I was learning and making progress, no matter how small (and progress was only small), I enjoyed it. 

[Piano posts: why it is interesting and significant that i own a piano, in which i begin re-learning how to play piano, using pianote, reflections on a year of piano lessons by a dedicated (and untalented) student.]

After a year, small, incremental progress became tiny. Minute. Microscopic. Gradually, progress dwindled off, then stopped altogether. I understand about learning plateaus, but this plateau seemed permanent. No matter how much I tried, it seemed I had hit an impenetrable wall. 

Learning is full of frustration. I know that. But in this, I must ask if I've reached the limits of my ability. No matter how much I practiced or what I tried, I was no longer advancing. And because I was no longer advancing, piano went from a difficult but satisfying challenge, to pure frustration. 

In June of this year, I started practicing less, and by July, stopped altogether. 

First I took a little time off, then weeks stretched into months... and I stopped. This winter, I'm going back to jigsaw puzzles.

I have a lifetime membership to Pianote, so I can return anytime. We'll see.

My games addiction is back, big-time

I love games. For me, games of all types are completely addictive. Once I start playing a game I like, time disappears. I always have to drag myself away. 

In my 20s and 30s, I thought that any time I spent playing games was a total waste. I was  freelancing, and maintaining discipline was very important. I used to say I had to be busy at all times to justify my existence, and I was only partly joking. Games were an addiction to be avoided.

After being diagnosed with fibromyalgia (after seven years of misdiagnosis), I gradually came to understand the need for downtime, and built it into my life. I also started recognizing the value of giving myself space for whatever I wanted to do -- without the need to justify it. So here I am.

I'm not a gamer. I don't go anywhere near videogames. Not because I think they're evil or a waste of time, but because it's a door I don't dare open. My brief experiences with videogames led me to believe that if I had a proper game system, I'd never watch a movie or a series again. My series/movie time is relaxing and restorative in a way that videogames wouldn't be. So I don't allow myself to go there.

I very rarely get to indulge my love of board games, as my partner has no interest. Considering all the awesome tabletop games out there these days, this is very sad! I would love to have a weekly music-and-game night. But no.

I love jigsaw puzzles, and have been enjoying great puzzle challenges during the winter for the past few years. (When I complete a puzzle, I post pics Facebook, but have spared wmtc that particular nonsense.) 

In Ontario, during times that I commuted by public transit, I could never concentrate enough to read, so I would listen to music and play games on my phone, mostly hundreds of different kinds of solitaire. Now I have no commute, but somehow I've become addicted to games on my phone anyway: crosswords, anagram games (NYT Spelling Bee and Wordscapes), and 3D puzzle games.

When I began piano lessons, I dropped puzzles, feeling that I don't have time for both. So now, it's back to puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles might drag me away from my phone games.