12.31.2012


Happy New Year! Here's to a happy, healthy, revolutionary 2013. Love to all.

to boldly go: in which captain james t. kirk returns to my tv

I am so enjoying re-watching the original Star Trek series, in order, from the beginning, on my US Netflix/Roku.

I half-dread writing about "Star Trek TOS", because of... well, you know. The whole Star Trek thing. The whole sci-fi thing. If you read the "what i'm watching" and "what i'm reading" posts on wmtc, you know I am not a science fiction aficionado. Obviously I am not a Trekkie or a Trekker. I don't know or care about Star Trek trivia. Shatner* memes can be mildly amusing, but really, whatever. I just really like this show.

(This is a problem when you casually enjoy something that has a cult following. I've never written about Xena, either, for the same reason. I'm not a fantasy fan. I just love that show!)

I watched Star Trek as a kid, back when there was no need to append "the original series" to the name,** but before stumbling on it on Netflix, I hadn't seen it in more than a decade. I thought I had seen the entire series, but now have discovered that I've seen only about half the episodes. I think the metro New York channel that showed Star Trek re-runs in those days only owned certain episodes. So while I saw about 30 episodes multiple times, there are a good 40-odd episodes that I've never seen at all.

Watching the show from the beginning, in order, is terrific. Early character development, references to back story, various early combinations of crew, the glam close-ups of Kirk as Ladies' Man - it's interesting to watch it all develop. And new stuff, right away! I had seen the famous two-part episode "The Menagerie," where Spock appears to face court-martial for kidnapping his former captain and hijacking the Enterprise, but I had never seen "The Cage," the pilot episode The Menagerie refers to. I'm waiting for my favourite episode: silicon-based life.

One thing that makes Star Trek TOS so interesting is the show's signature mix of the progressive and the conservative. There's the Enterprise's multinational crew, people of all backgrounds working together in harmony... but the captain is a WASP with two monosyllabic names. Women have been promoted to space travel and many are distinguished scientists... but their uniforms barely cover their butts.*** (I've read that Gene Roddenberry would have clothed the women in even skimpier costumes if television standards had allowed.) Thematically, the entire show is a vision of what exploration could have been. Imagine if the Europeans had followed The Prime Directive! Yet the Enterprise travels through a galaxy colonized by Earth. Starship command, as far as I can tell, are all Earth people. Something tells me United Earth is another name for the American Empire.

So far, all the episodes are based on a few templates. There are the being-with-superior-powers-toying-with-Enterprise-crew, who turns out to be a childlike figure controlled by superior beings. There is time travel in which the crew must not disturb the past in order to preserve the future. There is - a bit strangely, I think - fear of humans becoming slaves to technology. There are moralistic stories of tolerance, avoiding war, and what happens to beings with absolute power.

In the 1960s, as I understand it, the technology imagined on Star Trek was groundbreaking, almost prescient. Nowadays, it's amusing to spot the bits where they guessed wrong. Most of these come down to not anticipating the digital revolution, imagining advanced space travel in an analog world. So you get a chronometer that looks like an old car odometer, and a voice-activated computer producing microfilm-like pictures of typewritten index cards. When I re-watched the first season of Red Dwarf, I noted Lister waiting for his film to be developed in the ship's darkroom. It was not meant to be a joke. Funny how people imagined long-distance space travel but not instant photography.




* Obligatory Canadian sightings: William Shatner and James Doohan (who played Scotty) are/were both Canadian.

** No, I have never seen Star Trek "TNG". But yes, I have heard it's very good and I would probably like it. If I ever find out, I'll let you know.

*** I originally wrote "cover their boobs and thighs", but upon review, I see that there was rarely any cleavage seen on female characters. The uniforms were the miniest of mini dresses, with hemlines just south of unmentionable. The only chest exposed was male, usually sweaty, and almost always Shatner.

andy barrie, war resister, awarded order of canada

Congratulations to Andy Barrie, former CBC broadcaster, on being awarded the Order of Canada, the country's highest civilian honour. This CBC story says that Barrie "left the U.S. and moved to Canada during the Vietnam War". But if you listen to this interview, you will hear how Barry "left" and "moved": he had volunteered for the war in Vietnam, then deserted, and fled to Canada.

Andy Barrie is a war resister, and was a deserter. (Do you hear that, Jason Kenney? Andy volunteered and deserted, and he was still allowed to stay.) Andy has been a longtime and active supporter of the War Resisters Support Campaign and of our current group of resisters to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Thank you, Andy Barrie, for being in Canada, and for choosing peace.

12.30.2012

a people's history of the war of 1812

At last, this is the fourth post of the talks I attended in November and December. Allan and I organized this in Mississauga, through the Mississauga "twig" of the IS. The talk was given by our friend and comrade John Bell.

The other recent talks: noah richler, u.s. war resisters, and the militarization of canadian culture, from greece to chicago to toronto, workers fighting back against austerity, and talking radical: a history of canada through the eyes of activists.

Allan is guest-posting this one.

* * * *

This past year, Conservative MP Paul Calandra hosted a War of 1812- related "celebration of the armed forces" in Stouffville, Ontario, including a military flyover. This was one small part of a nationwide propaganda campaign by Steven Harper's Conservative Government - which is costing Canadian taxpayers at least $30 million - to prop up a myth: a sense of Canadian glory about the War of 1812.

The Conservatives claim that the War of 1812 united Canadians of all backgrounds - francophones, Anglos, First Nations, and blacks - as they all pulled together to bravely defeat the enemy from the south, the United States. However, as John Bell ably demonstrated in his presentation, "A People's History of the War of 1812" at the Central Library in Mississauga on December 13, nothing could be further from the truth.

Calandra is the Parliamentary Secretary for Canadian Heritage, but that's no guarantee that he knows anything about the history of his country. And it would appear that he does not. Bell pointed out that the town of Stouffville was established as a Mennonite community: its residents were mostly pacifists and war resisters who had fled the US to avoid military service. Stouffville's actual ties to the War of 1812 are "pacifism, objection to war, and peacemaking".

A people's war?

Bell explained that most people living in Upper Canada (what is now southern Ontario) at the time were Americans who had fled the US to escape excessive taxation, and to take advantage of Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe's offer of 200 acres of free land. Approximately 30,000 American emigrated and became, in Simcoe's term, "late loyalists". But their real loyalty was not so much to the crown as to their land and their own communities. At that time, the Canadian-US border was still very fluid. Many, maybe most, people had friends, family, and trading partners on the other side of the border. When the war began, the nationalist view of fighting a foreign country didn't work for many people in Upper Canada. Members of some local militias argued that their only duty was to their own community - and they refused to march elsewhere (such as over the border) to fight.

Both sides were plagued (or blessed) by draft dodgers, pacifists, and war resisters. Canada's militias often didn't show up for duty or didn't bring their weapons. (Guns were very valuable and the men did not want theirs damaged.) Sometimes when a soldier did report, he saw the paltry turnout, and turned around and went home. The militias were often poorly trained; many were commanded by political hacks and appointees who had little or no knowledge of military tactics or strategy , and sometimes little stomach to fight. Bell says that the idea that most Canadian militias fought admirably is "an absolute absurdity". (Some Canadians from well north of Toronto left their farms and travelled south to loot Canadian towns, sometimes even helping their fellow looters (i.e. Americans) load up their boats!)

On the other side, the American government tried to fight the war on the cheap, and had no real plans for feeding, clothing, or arming their troops. The American soldiers were so poorly cared for that they invaded the city of Buffalo - finally defeating other American citizens because of its superior cannon power - to get proper food and supplies.

Why was the war fought... and who won?

Why was the war fought? According to many historians, gaining control of Canada was never the US's goal. The US had declared war in an attempt to pressure Britain into changing its maritime practices to permit freer travel of US ships. Very early in the war, the US decided that, even with victory, it would not annex any portion of Canada, as this would upset the delicate political balance of slave and non-slave territory.

Who won? Bell says, "You could make a good case that it was a draw." You could also argue a good case that the US won, as Britain soon changed its maritime regulations in a way that was beneficial to US trade. The War of 1812 also ushered in significant changes to the US, such as a standing army and a more centralized federal government, which led to the country becoming much more powerful. And, with Britain no longer a threat to the US, the US could concentrate on expanding west.

Every war is civil war

The Harper Government's propaganda campaign around the War of 1812 must be seen in context of its ongoing attempts to militarize every aspect of Canadian society: an increase in military recruitment in schools, targetted recruitment of immigrant and racialized communities, the revisionist history of Canada's new citizenship guide to emphasize war and erase peacemaking, the ballooning military budget. The ongoing politicization of the military. The revised meaning of Remembrance Day, noted by so many Canadians: once a solemn day of "never again," now a glorification of war. In that context, the Harper Government wants us to believe that military strength was instrumental in forming Canada and in forging a united Canadian identity. And so, this militarized nationalism is being read back into Canadian history, two centuries after the fact.

The people who fought the War of 1812 were the same on both sides of the border: farmers, tradespeople, and labourers, who were pressured, lured, or conscripted into a war that had very little to do with the reality of their lives. As in all wars, the people actually doing the fighting on both sides had more in common with each other than with the ruling class who called for the war and profited from it.

* * * *

For more about this fresh perspective on the War of 1812, John Bell recommends reading The Civil War of 1812, by Alan Taylor. John compares and critiques published versions of the war here: War of 1812: myth and reality.

12.29.2012

there is no justice in murder

First we read about the horrific gang rape, with spectators.

Then we learn that the victim has died.

Then, on top of all that, we hear authorities may seek the death penalty for the perpetrators. I was heartened by the demonstrations and the vigils. Until I read that people are clamouring for murder.

Murder is not justice. It is vengeance. It won't make women any safer.

chief theresa spence calling for solidarity actions on sunday, december 30

Media Release
For Immediate Release December 28, 2012

Attawapiskat Chief Spence heading into day 19 of hunger strike and seeking Canadians, Members of Parliament and politicians to urge Prime Minister Harper to meet and commit to Nation to Nation relations with Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples.

Algonquin Territory, Ottawa, Ontario

Chief Theresa Spence is heading into day nineteen of a hunger strike and concern for her health has been expressed by community members worldwide. Her resolve is unwavering to continue her hunger strike until the Prime Minister and his government agree to a meeting to discuss a commitment and a way forward to begin Nation to Nation treaty based relationship and a path forward for reconciliation with First Nations and Canada.

Her condition continues to weaken every hour and the time has come for increased efforts to gain the support of Canadians and governments in forging this new relationship.

Two events will be planned for Sunday December 30th, 2012.

1. Open house invitation to all Members of Parliament and Senators to visit with Chief Spence at her teepee at Victoria Island, Ottawa. Chief Spence will be receiving MPs and Senators on Sunday December 30th, from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. Media will be welcome for a brief statement and comments.

2. Chief Spence is requesting all Canadians and Indigenous People worldwide join in solidarity for ceremonies, events and rallies to call on Prime Minister Harper to answer the call of Aboriginal Nations to meet with Chief Spence and commit to a path of recognition and implementation of the treaty commitments and forging a new First Nations crown relationship. National and International Coordinated events will be planned for Sunday December 30th, 2012 at 2 pm Eastern time.

In Toronto: meet at the Eaton Centre, Centre Court fountain, 2:00

stephen harper, meet with chief theresa spence before it is too late

When our ancestors made treaties with the British Crown to allow the Queen's subjects to live in our territories, it was for as long as the sun shines, the waters flow and the grass grows. The Crown's only legal access to our lands is contingent upon the fulfilment of the promises made in the negotiations of treaty. Canada is considered a First World country and our peoples are living in extreme poverty and substandard living conditions. As nations, we held up our end of the treaty, yet Canada continues to only pay lip service to our relationship.

— Chief Theresa Spence
If the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs can meet with Chief Spence, as the Health Minister suggests, then the Prime Minister and the Governor General can do the same. It's not too much to ask. In fact, it's incredibly conciliatory and compassionate, considering the treatment aboriginal peoples have received and the conditions they have endured.

12.28.2012

what i'm reading, children's books edition: # 2

How this series works: I write about one or two older books, offer an my opinion on whether the book will be relevant and accessible to children today, and suggest a more contemporary equivalent. I also recommend two additional children's books.

* * * *

Still Classic?

My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George, 1959
Hatchet, Gary Paulsen, 1987, first of series of five books

Sam Gribley, the teenage hero of My Side of the Mountain, runs away from his crowded New York City home, determined to live off the land. He brings only a few basic tools and a little money, and learns how to survive by trial-and-error and through research at the local library. Sam does more than survive: he builds a rich life for himself in the woods. After contact with some locals from nearby towns, this "wild boy" of the forest becomes something of a local legend.

I was fascinated with this book as a child. It inspired fantasies of living off the land the way Sam Gribley did, and deepened my appreciation of nature. Re-reading the book as an adult, I was still impressed. There are some awkward, old-fashioned phrasing - "You know, it really does hurt to be terribly hungry" does not sound like a teenage boy to me - but the arc of Sam's progress is compelling enough to overlook those. The book is packed with details about nature and survival, from how to build a fire and find edible plants, to how to train a hawk and tan a deerskin hide.

In Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, fifteen-year-old Brian Robeson survives an accident but is left alone in the Canadian wilderness, his only tool and helper, a hatchet. Where My Side of the Mountain is a naturalist's tale, Hatchet is about survival. Brian's life is at stake. He is forced to learn how to build a fire without matches, how to make a safe shelter, how to get food. These lessons are about more than information and technique. They are, quite literally, lessons of life or death.

As Brian adapts and learns, he becomes more atuned to both himself and his surroundings. He acquires more than new skills; he acquires a new sense of self, of nature, of the interconnectedness of all things. He also learns, painfully, about the random luck of life and death, of nature's beauty, and its cruelty, and its loneliness.

Paulsen's writing is sparse and urgent, and always feels authentic. Because Brian has survived a terrible accident and has no possibility of simply leaving and going home, Hatchet has an urgency that My Side of the Mountain lacks. Brian is also dealing with his parents' recent divorce and some painful knowledge about his mother. This also grounds Brian's character in reality. Sam Gribley's family, by contrast, is an abstraction.

Jean Craighead George, author of My Side of the Mountain, also wrote the excellent Julie of the Wolves (1972), among other books. George was a naturalist who lived with a family full of animals, and a prolific and excellent writer. She died in 2012, her death little noticed (perhaps because Maurice Sendak, a more famous children's author, died around the same time).

I would still recommend My Side of the Mountain to young readers, but I'd go for Hatchet first.


Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, series originally published from 1932-1943, republished in many subsequent editions
Dear Canada, Dear America, My Story, I Am Canada series, various authors

I was fascinated with the Little House series as a child, and you can guess why. The main character's name was Laura, and she grew up to be the Laura who wrote these books. A Laura who was a writer. I don't know if I read the entire series, but I read many of them, and many times. [The Canadian equivalent may be Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. But I didn't grow up in Canada, I don't share the Canadian obsession with these books, and I won't venture into that territory just now.]

I haven't looked at a Little House book since my grade-school days, and I had no idea how they would read. The answer is: really well. The writing is simple and straightforward, and surprisingly, does not feel dated. The Ingalls family faces challenges and hardships, always together as a family, and always seeing the bright side of every situation.

But. There's a big but. The Ingalls family were white settlers on the American frontier. That means they encountered Indians, as the Native Americans would have been called. And depictions of Indians, in those days, means racism. The Little House books are perennials on the Challenged Book list, always accused of racism. Picking up these books for the first time in more than 40 years, I was holding my breath a bit, wondering how bad it would be.

I'm pleased to say it wasn't that bad. Nowhere near as racist as Hollywood movies of the same era, where Indians are either bloodthirsty savages or lazy idiots. Wilder's Indians are utterly different from the white settlers - they are exotified - and their difference frightens the family. But they are depicted as real human beings - people with families and traditions, and an authentic culture of their own. When a character says, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," Pa - who is the moral authority of the series, the voice of benevolent authority - disagrees. Pa believes in mutual respect, in live-and-let-live.

But. But still. These are settlers. They are descendants of Europeans, and they are "taming" a "wilderness"; they are claiming this land for their own. There is no challenge or counterpoint to Manifest Destiny. I would hardly expect a children's book to refer to the westward expansion as genocide, but the indigenous point of view is completely absent.

There are other cringe-worthy bits, too. In Little Town on the Prairie, a minstrel show comes to town. The racism here is blatant, and quite disgusting.

Racism and imperialism in classic children's literature is a huge issue, and I won't try to deal with it exhaustively here. Little House on the Prairie is the tip of the iceberg. Some old children's books considered classics, still on the shelves in libraries throughout the English-speaking world, are shockingly racist, and I question the need to include them in our libraries today.

Here are two interesting perspectives on this issue. In The Diamond in the Window, a blog about children's books, a mom writes about dealing with the racism, both written and implied: Racism, History, and Little House on the Prairie. This mom feels the answer is providing context. I agree, but it's a tough job, and I wonder about the necessity of it. Do our children really suffer if they're not exposed to the books of their parents' or grandparents' youth? Won't books of their own generation do well enough?

In the Laura Ingalls Wilder blog Only Laura, a writer and fan of the series asks, "Little House on the Prairie: Racist or Not?".
Yes, Ma is racist (and as a mother I must say understandably so, trying to mother her children in the middle of such unrest). But if Ma is racist, isn’t Pa her counterpart? And whose side does Laura take? Whose side does the narrator take? What emerges is, in fact, a complex push-pull relationship as Laura has to make a decision about how she feels about these people she knows as Indians. And the author shares with me — the reader — that decision.

Laura likes Indians. She admires them. She feels badly for what’s happening to them. She does not say each of these things outright, although she does say some of them. By what Laura Ingalls Wilder, the writer, chooses to share about the character Laura’s thoughts about the Indians, it’s clear that to her, Ma’s judgment does not ring true.

I think that for young readers, the lesson here is not racism. It’s acceptance and respect.
Well, maybe. This is the perspective of someone who finds racism "understandable" when a woman is "mothering" children, and who employs that delicate, blame-free euphemism, "unrest". I agree that Wilder, through the character of Pa, emphasizes tolerance and mutual respect. But the reader is still identifying with the trials and tribulations of the settlers. The Indian perspective is barely alluded to.

I think young readers are better served from a fresher perspective on history. Historical fiction series like Dear America, Dear Canada, I Am Canada, and My Story all tell history from the first-person point of view of a young person. They tackle some difficult territory, like the internment of Ukrainian immigrants in Canada, the anti-Semitism that led to boatloads of doomed European Jews being turned away from North American shores (both in the US and Canada), and child labour. The writing is very good, and the first-person narratives are gripping.

I was very disappointed to see that the "Dear Canada" series is marketed exclusively to girls. The equivalent series marketed to boys is almost entirely focused on war. (One exception is a book about building the transcontinental railway.) Don't boys need and want to learn about history? As a student librarian, I already find myself clashing with childrens' readers' advisory that is almost entirely segregated by gender. Let's save that discussion for another day.

However, as I was writing this post, I was very pleased to learn that the "I Am Canada" series, the "boy" history series, includes a story of a war resister! A soldier in the trenches of WWI, horrified and traumatized, wanders off, as if he can go home to Canada. He comes upon a band of deserters, and must decide whether to continue to resist the war, or to return to the front. I've requested a copy from the Toronto Public Library (the Mississauga Library System doesn't own it) and will write about it soon.

These historical fiction series are, of course, still official readings of history. Don't expect Howard Zinn. But the non-dominant perspective is brought forward, in a way that the Laura Ingalls Wilder books cannot do.


Contemporary Classics

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead, 2009

Set in New York City in the late 1970s, When You Reach Me is a straightforward, realistic story, with a touch of the fantastical mixed in, a kind of magic realism that is thrilling and just a bit scary.

As Miranda's long-time best friendship breaks apart, and just as she tentatively begins to form some new friendships, the barefoot, laughing man appears in the neighbourhood for the first time. Who is sending Miranda these tiny handwritten notes - and how does the note-writer know so much about her?

This powerful tween novel also pays homage to one of the best children's books of all time, A Wrinkle in Time. I can't tell you what the two books have in common without giving too much away. Like Holes, When You Reach Me is a story of redemption. It's also about friendship, and independence, and what gets left behind as we come into our own. Also like Holes, it's one of the very best tween books I've read.


Because of Winn Dixie, Kate DiCamillo, 2000

When 10-year-old Opal finds a big, ugly dog in a Winn-Dixie grocery store, she names him after the store and brings him home. Opal lives with her father, a preacher, and misses her mother, who she doesn't know much about. Opal needs friends, and she makes them - because of Winn Dixie.

An assortment of quirky but very believable characters comes into Opal's life. The town librarian, whose ancestor made his fortune by creating a candy that is sweet, but tastes like sorrow, and who once fought off a bear with a copy of War and Peace. A nearly blind woman who town children say is a witch. A man in a pet store who plays his guitar for the animals. Winn Dixie brings these people into Opal's life, and Opal brings them into each other's lives.

This is a lovely, sad, heartwarming, but not sentimental, story. Children who like it will want to read it again and again, to get closer to the wonderful characters.

12.25.2012

follow-up memo to children's aid: we told you so. happy christmas.

Back in May, I blogged about a family in my area who faced a nightmare: social services had threated to remove their child from their home. Both parents have disabilities, and although they had proved themselves completely capable of taking care of a baby, Children's Aid said they must hire round-the-clock assistance, or the family could not stay together.

When the story came to light, there was a huge outcry, not only from the disability community but from the general public, too. Children's Aid backed down, and, according to this follow-up story, has become their support and their ally.

Today, because reason won out over prejudice, the family celebrates its first Christmas together. I wish them a beautiful day.

12.24.2012

what i'm reading, children's books edition: # 1

This is the first post in an occasional series about children's books. My plan is to intersperse children's books among my usual reading, and to write short reviews of several books for young people in one post.

In each, I'll include one or two older books thought to be classics, and give an opinion on the question: Does this book hold up? Is it still relevant and accessible to children today? Would I suggest it to a young reader, or is there a contemporary equivalent that I'd choose instead?

I'll also write about two other children's books that I recommend.

* * * *

Still Classic?

The Borrowers, Mary Norton, 1952, five books in the series
The Spiderwick Chronicles, Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, 2003, currently eight books in the series

Borrowers are tiny creatures who look like miniature people, live in human homes, and re-purpose human belongings. If you're missing a thimble, a Borrower might be using it to strain spaghetti. Your missing bandanna might be a blanket for a king-size Borrower bed. When you lose something that you just know is in the house somewhere, but you can't find it, perhaps a Borrower took it.

The premise of The Borrowers is a terrific idea, but the books are old, and they are British, and may make unsatisfying - or incomprehensible - reading for a child in Canada or the US today. The language and the sentence structure may be too inaccessible. References to hat pins, darning, breakfast rooms, cupboards, and a hoop (as a toy), all in the first few pages, are likely to be off-putting.

A similar fantasy concept forms the basis of Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's The Spiderwick Chronicles: three children move into an old estate and discover a world of fairy creatures living in the walls and floors. The ensuing adventures are a little scary and a little gross, full of vivid descriptions and lots of action. The childrens' personalities and issues will ring true to most readers. And it's all complimented by beautiful Gothic-style illustrations.


From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, E. L. Konigsburg, 1967
The View from Saturday, E. L. Konigsburg, 1996

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler is a classic 'tween novel about a girl and her younger brother who run away from home and hide out in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia's issues - feeling underappreciated, wanting to separate from her family and have her own adventure - are universal for young readers. The art-world mystery the children discover, and their new relationship with a surrogate grandparent, develop quickly and feel relevant. While some details feel dated - Claudia saves her allowance for a $1.40 train fare, her brother Jamie buys a transistor radio - I think young readers will easily glide over these and enjoy the story.

While I wouldn't avoid From the Mixed-Up Files, published in 1967, if I were introducing a young reader to the joys of E. L. Konigsburg, I'd start with 1996's A View from Saturday. Four misfit middle-school students will represent their school in an academic competition. Chapters following their progress alternate with chapters narrated by one of the members, each recounting a story of something that changed their life. At the heart of the competition is not so much a mystery as a puzzle. The clues are not obvious - in fact they're a little convoluted - but good readers won't be put off. Funny, touching, insightful, A View from Saturday is an excellent 'tween novel that will resonate with many readers.






Contemporary Classics

Holes, Louis Sachar, 1998

Stanley Yelnats has been accused of stealing a pair of sneakers from a famous baseball player. Despite his innocence, he is found guilty. That's typical for the Yelnats family. If it weren't for bad luck, they'd have no luck at all.

Stanley is sentenced to 18 months at Camp Green Lake. Camp Green Lake isn't what it sounds like. It's not a camp, there’s nothing green, and there’s no lake. In fact, there’s no anything – it’s in the middle of the desert in Texas. Nothing for miles and miles around but dry, flat, earth under the baking sun.

At Camp Green Lake, Stanley meets boys named X-Ray, Squid, Armpit, Zigzag, and Zero. And they're all digging holes.

Every day, every boy has to dig a huge hole under the hot desert sun. The digging is supposed to turn them from bad boys to good boys. But maybe that’s not the real reason the boys are forced to dig holes. Stanley starts to realize that the warden at Camp Green Lake is looking for something. Something buried in the desert, a long time ago. What is she looking for?

Holes is a story of mistakes and redemption, of the past echoing in our lives, and of our ability to create our own lives in spite of the past. Holes is one of my favourite books, and one of the very best books for young people that I've read.


The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan, 2005 (first in Percy Jackson series)

Rick Riordan is one of the most popular children's authors, and the moment you begin The Lightning Thief, you'll know why. The sentences fairly leap off the page, packed with action and vivid descriptions. Even reluctant readers may feel as though they're watching a movie.

Twelve-year-old Percy Jackson feels mired in a life of failure and loss, until he begins to discover his true origins and his destiny. The discovery sets Percy on a hero's journey, a quest to save his friends - and save the world. The present day coming-of-age and the fantastical hero's journey combine, as the realistic world mixes with a world of ancient gods and mythological creatures.

The Lightning Thief is super fast-paced; the narrator's voice is funny, sarcastic, and hip. Kids pick up this book and are riveted on the spot: I've seen boys read the whole novel in the library in one sitting, then go to the shelf to search for the next installment.

Rick Riordan has written two Percy Jackson serieses - Percy Jackson & the Olympians, and Heroes of Olympus - as well as The Kane Chronicles series, and several books for adults. Riordan also began the very popular (and excellent) children's series The 39 Clues. Few children's writers command as loyal and avid a following as Rick Riordan. See his website here.

12.23.2012

trials of a student librarian: readers' advisory, the library thing i love best

Of all the aspects of librarianship that I know about, the piece I'm most excited about is readers' advisory.

Readers' advisory is the library term for answering that important question... "What to read next?" Questions like, "Do you have any more books like this one?", "I'm tired of reading mysteries, I need something different," and "I loved this book, I want another just like it," are all about readers' advisory.

I was surprised to learn that adult readers ask library staff for book recommendations all the time. In my own reading, I am guided by almost exclusively by book reviews. It never occurred to me that people ask librarians about pleasure reading. But they do, in droves.

In the childrens' department, readers' advisory is a constant need. More than half the questions I hear from our young customers and their parents are a search for pleasure reading, and few things are more important. The key to childrens' educational (and life) success is good reading skills, and the key to developing good literacy skills is reading material that engage the reader. Just what will engage the reader is the big question.

Readers' advisory takes many forms. If your library has a "new and notable" table, a "staff picks" section, or a "How many of these great books have you read?" sign, that's readers' advisory. When a book is displayed face-out at the end of a stack, that's readers' advisory. If you see a sign with "If you enjoyed Very Popular Book, you might also enjoy... Similar Book That You May Not Have Heard Of," that's readers' advisory, too.

Readers' advisory websites like Booklist, Your Next Read, and Kids Reads have made library staff's job easier and faster. But the advent of these websites doesn't prevent people from asking librarians what to read next. A good thing!

The most active and intense form of readers' advisory is booktalking - giving a brief presentation to try to interest an audience in a book. Good booktalking is an amazing skill, something to aspire to. One excellent booktalk website is Be a Better Booktalker, written by Andrea Lipinski, a YA librarian.

I've been doing informal readers' advisory pretty much all my life - recommending books for my mothers' long-running book club, or having titles on hand to match people with books, and of course, the what i'm reading posts on wmtc. Now I'm realizing that this is my primary interest in librarianship: excellent readers' advisory is where I want to focus my energies, for a start.

tell stephen harper you support chief theresa spence and idle no more

As Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence enters her twelfth day without food, solidarity actions with the IdleNoMore aboriginal movement are growing throughout Canada and around the globe.

In Winnipeg, demonstrators blocked the Trans Canada Highway. In freezing weather in Edmonton, protesters filled downtown streets. At least 1,000 people came out in the snow in Ottawa. In Toronto, supporters filled Dundas Square with a flash-mob round dance. Hundreds protested in Iqaluit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse. In Vancouver, Montreal, Saskatoon, and Sudbury, people took to the streets.

Aboriginal peoples in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and the UK have shown solidarity.

The movement has pierced the mainstream media.

But still, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says nothing. Does nothing. Refuses to be engaged.

Please go here to sign a letter to Stephen Harper. Tell Stephen Harper to meet with First Nations Leaders, include First Nations in decision-making, and observe and honour treaty rights.

More info:

Stephen Harper should meet Attawapiskat chief on hunger strike, editorial, Toronto Star

Why ‘Idle No More’ is gaining strength, and why all Canadians should care by Jeff Denis, Op-Ed, Toronto Star

A peoples' movement that is Idle No More, Waubgeshig Rice, CBC.ca

Charlie Angus, MP: Harper: Act Now Before Chief Theresa Spence Dies

Idle no more, from Canada to Mexico in Socialist Worker Canada

greenwald, ellsberg, and others launch freedom of press foundation to fight government censorship and secrecy

An important and exciting column by Glenn Greenwald. See original for more links.
New press freedom group is launched to block US government attacks

Nothing is more vital than enabling true transparency and adversarial journalism, and preventing further assaults on them

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the steps taken by the US government to pressure large corporations to choke off the finances and other means of support for WikiLeaks in retaliation for the group's exposure of substantial government deceit, wrongdoing and illegality. Because WikiLeaks has never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime, I wrote: "that the US government largely succeeded in using extra-legal and extra-judicial means to cripple an adverse journalistic outlet is a truly consequential episode." At the end of that column, I disclosed that I had been involved in discussions "regarding the formation of a new organization designed to support independent journalists and groups such as WikiLeaks under attack by the US and other governments."

That group has now been formed and, this morning, was formally launched. Its name is Freedom of the Press Foundation. Its website is here and its Twitter account, which will be quite active, is @FreedomOfPress.

I'm very excited to have participated in its formation and will serve as an unpaid member of the Board of Directors, along with the heroic whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, 2012 McArthur-fellowship-receipient and Oscar-nominated documentarian Laura Poitras, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation John Perry Barlow, the actor and civil liberties advocate John Cusack, BoingBoing co-founder Xeni Jardin, and several other passionate free press and transparency activists. Numerous articles have been written today about its launch, including from the New York Times' media reporter David Carr, the Guardian's Dan Gillmor, Forbes' Andy Greenberg, Huffington Post's media reporter Michael Calderone, FDL's Kevin Gosztola, and board member Josh Stearns.

The primary impetus for the formation of this group was to block the US government from ever again being able to attack and suffocate an independent journalistic enterprise the way it did with WikiLeaks. Government pressure and the eager compliance of large financial corporations (such as Visa, Master Card, Bank of America, etc.) has - by design - made it extremely difficult for anyone to donate to WikiLeaks, while many people are simply afraid to directly support the group (for reasons I explained here).

We intend to raise funds ourselves and then distribute it to the beneficiaries we name. The first group of beneficiaries includes WikiLeaks. We can circumvent those extra-legal, totally inappropriate blocks that have been imposed on the group. We can enable people to support WikiLeaks without donating directly to it by donating to this new organization that will then support a group of deserving independent journalism outlets, one of which is WikiLeaks. In sum, we will render impotent the government's efforts to use its coercive pressure over corporations to suffocate not only WikiLeaks but any other group it may similarly target in the future.

The second purpose is to ensure that truly independent journalistic outlets - devoted to holding the US government and other powerful factions accountable with transparency and real adversarial journalism - are supported to the fullest extent possible. Along those lines, we have selected three other organizations along with WikiLeaks as our initial beneficiaries:

- Muckrock News, a truly innovative group devoted to enabling any citizen easily and quickly to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or public records requests with the government, and then "guides the requests through the system so the government does not disregard" them. They also act as a news organization by analyzing and publicizing any newsworthy information they and their users uncover. Currently, "they are conducting a Drone Census of the United States, filing public records requests around the country that ask police agencies if they plan on buying domestic drones for surveillance purposes."

- The UpTake, a Minnesota-based group that uses truly innovative means to break "down walls of power to expose the raw truth by pushing for transparency and access to information." They use citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing and cutting-edge technology to film and document the bad acts of government agents. I worked next to them when I covered the incredibly excessive federal and local police actions and brutality against protesters at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, and was truly impressed with them then, as I watched all sorts of young activists and older ones use hand-held video cameras and phones to comprehensively cover all sorts of police abuses being ignored by most large journalistic outlets, which were comfortably ensconced inside the convention hall. They've expanded their operations substantially since then, have a long list of achievements to tout, and - most excitingly to me - can serve as a template for how to engage in real journalism across the country using citizens and the power of technology.

- The National Security Archive, a group founded "by journalists and scholars to check rising government secrecy" and which "combines a unique range of functions: investigative journalism center, research institute on international affairs, library and archive of declassified U.S. documents." It also "serves as an advocacy organization to defend and expand citizen access to government information", as exemplified by its having "filed over 40,000 targeted Freedom of Information and declassification requests to more than 200 offices and agencies of the United States." Anyone who writes about or works on transparency and civil liberties issues (including me) depends on it; due to its efforts, "more than 10 million pages of previously secret U.S. government documents have been made public."

Each of these groups is innovating real, adversarial journalism. They deserve the support of anyone who believes that rampant government secrecy and a supine establishment media are serious problems. And our new organization needs the support of everyone who finds the ability of the US government to shut off the funding of journalistic groups it dislikes to be threatening and wrong.

By clicking here, you can donate to all four of these groups at once or to any combination of them in whatever amounts you specify. Every two months, we will release a new bundle of deserving groups or individuals devoted to these values of independent, adversarial journalism and in need. You can also donate directly to the Freedom of Press Foundation, which will distribute the funds to the beneficiaries in accordance with our published criteria. All of the details of the group's operation, mission, and goals are here. Those who lack the resources to donate can help in other ways, listed here.

Secrecy is the linchpin of abuse of power. Few priorities are more important, in my view, than supporting and enabling any efforts to subvert the ability of the US government and other factions to operate in the dark. It's particularly vital to undercut the US government's ability to punish and kill groups that succeed in these transparency efforts. Those are the goals to which this new press freedom foundation are devoted, and I hope that anyone who believes these goals are important will find ways to support this effort.

12.22.2012

i hate christmas is slightly hateful this year

I've noticed a distinct reduction in my annual irritation and disgust at the holiday madness this year.* An unexpected convergence of events has brought on a pleasant state of near-apathy.

First, no TV. Watching shows on Netflix or by download is blissfully free of advertising. No salespeople dressed up as Santa Claus, no "gift ideas" for useless crap future landfill.

Next, I haven't stepped foot in a mall. Not that I ever do much mall shopping, but my hair salon is in a mall, and sometimes some obligatory gift or errand forces me into the insanity. Not this year.

Most importantly, I'm not working as legal support staff anymore. This means no more listening to co-workers recite lists of what they are buying for whom. I don't know why people do this (they can't possibly think anyone else cares?), but for me it was the low-point of the office work environment. And it's gone!

Something also happened on the positive side of the equation. At our staff holiday lunch, people were talking about their Christmas traditions - Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day, which family they see on which day. Many have traditions connected to their ethnic heritage, like Eastern Orthodox Christmas on January 7, or seafood dinners on Christmas Eve, as many families of Italian descent do. One person was attending a sing-a-long Messiah, someone else was preparing for an extended-family tree-trimming party.

This was the first time in many years I was exposed to a Christmas that wasn't only about consumption, unhappy obligation, and stress. It was comforting to know that people have Christmas traditions that they truly love and value, beyond spending money.

I still dislike and resent that a religious holiday is a national holiday, and we're all expected to participate. I am still disgusted by the massive increase in advertising and consumerism in our world already supersaturated with consumerism.

But hiding in my little Christmas-free cocoon is a little easier this year.



* There are some very interesting discussions in those threads.

12.21.2012

happy howlidays!


Love and happy holidays from all of us at chez wmtc. In 2013, raise your voice! Howl for peace, howl for justice. Howl for change.

12.20.2012

talking radical: a history of canada through the eyes of activists

This the third of the four talks I attended semi-recently. Other recent talks: noah richler, u.s. war resisters, and the militarization of canadian culture, and from greece to chicago to toronto, workers fighting back against austerity.

* * * *

Scott Neigh, who writes the blog A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land, has published a pair of books that "enter Canadian history-from-below through the words of long-time activists." You can learn more about these books and who is featured in them at Scott's Talking Radical website.

I attended a book-launch event for Neigh's books because my friend and comrade Frank Showler was speaking. Frank, who was a war resister during the second World War, is a stalwart supporter of the War Resisters Support Campaign - and all peace activism - and I was there to show support to Frank. But of course I learned from every speaker, and from the perspectives of many people in the audience.

Neigh talked about what he learned from interviewing long-time Canadian activists - the connections between the past and the present, the sense of continuity as we continue these struggles, the connections between the individual experience and the larger social history - the proof that our actions matter.

Neigh touched on how history as it is conventionally taught - wars, "great men" - does not equip us to understand social movements. This awareness led him to interview more than 50 activists throughout Canada, and he came to understand how any version of history is always incomplete.

* * * *

Frank Showler, who refused to fight in World War II, said that he never thought of his stance as resistance to the government, but as resistance to war. He cooperated with alternative service, and suggested we should more rightly honour those "non-cooperators,", people like Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to participate even in alternative-service programs.

I've heard Frank tell part of his own story before, but on this evening he was much more concerned with the present: how the Harper Government doesn't believe in peace, and is "militarizing the country as fast as they can". Frank spoke of how he and his late wife, Isabel, supported U.S. resisters to the Vietnam War, and how he now supports Iraq War resisters. But, Frank said, "Maybe we should all be resisting much more fully than we ever have before."

Don Weitz has been involved in anti-psychiatry activism for decades, harnessing tremendous anger against the "so-called mental health system". Weitz saw the abuses, the cruelty, the barbarism of this system from both sides - as both patient and practitioner. In his view, psychiatry has not changed all that much since those grim days in the 1950s. Inspired by the US civil rights movement and by the women's movement, Wietz joined others in forming the "mental patients' liberation movement," now usually called "psychiatric survivors".

Weitz recounted the beginnings of the movement in Detroit in 1973, then in Topeka, Kansas in 1974, fueled by resistance to forced drugging and forced ECT (shock therapy), used as weapons of control, submission, and conformity. Weitz said after witnessing the "daily degradation and humiliation" of patients, it was "thrilling" to see people who had always been silent now speaking out.

Weitz now runs a conference called "Psych Out," and focuses on the forced medicating of children, psychiatry's most vulnerable victims.

Josephine Grey is a long-time anti-poverty and human rights activist, now working with the Occupy Movement. Grey focused on her dismay at how even the most engaged young people, those who care about social change, seem to know very little about Canadian history. Grey believes young people need to "completely separate" from the internet and their electronic devices, to go off the grid, in order to organize and sustain movements.

She described Canada as exceptional in the vast disconnect between public face and reality: "No other country does a better job of covering up its ugliness."

I took exception to some of Grey's framing. I cannot question her own lived experience, but I do wonder whether young activists of decades past were so well grounded in movement history, or if there isn't perhaps some romanticizing of the past in this view, or perhaps a general distate for contemporary youth culture. Regardless, all activists need to learn more about the past movements that propelled social change. There's no arguing with that.

* * * *

Neigh wrapped up by talking about ways we can think differently about Canadian history.

Foremost, he said, we must focus on struggle. For example, the standard Canadian history of universal health insurance begins and ends with Tommy Douglas. But although Douglas is a key figure in that story, it was not a solo battle, any more than the U.S. civil rights movement was fought singlehandedly by Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. We can ask ourselves, what role did struggle pay in forming the current health care system?

Neigh reminded us that becoming more familiar with histories of oppression and resistance helps us become less comfortable with colonization, genocide, and racist immigration policies that have shaped Canadian history. Think about this, he challeged us: a few centuries ago, there were no white people on this continent, and no one spoke English. Now the dominant language is English and the ruling class is white. How did that happen? Neigh suggests we should bring our awareness of that question to every picture of Canadian history.

Neigh used another example that I frequently go to. The post-war era - after World War II - is often referred to as a time of great "peace and prosperity". But was it peaceful, and who prospered? Did people of colour prosper? Were gay people free to be at peace? If there was prosperity, what role did labour struggles play in making that possible?

In his interviews, Neigh said, he focused on struggles in which he had not been a direct participant, and this approach holds another key: to "listen across differences". Neigh emphasized something that we often talk about here at wmtc and at my partner's blog: no history is neutral. There's no such thing as having no point of view. When we bring our anti-war beliefs to a baseball game, we are accused of "politicizing" the game, of inappropriately inserting our politics into a non-political event. But the constant and increasing military presence, and the glamorizing of war at sports events is supposedly neutral. No. Official history is never neutral.

Our job is to make visible the invisible point of view in those official histories. We can challenge it every chance we get.

12.17.2012

happy birthday, bradley manning

Today is the third birthday that courageous military whistleblower Bradley Manning has spent in prison. By the time his court martial begins in March, he will have been imprisoned almost three years, including a full year in solitary confinement - an internationally recognized form of torture.

Bradley Manning helped people see the truth about the US occupation of Iraq. And for that he is being persecuted.

Manning's lawyer, David Coombs, recently spoke publicly to a group of supporters in Washington DC. Here's an excerpt from his speech:
When I'm in the courtroom, I stand up and look to my right, and, I see the United States government. The United States government with all of its resources, all of its personnel, I see them standing against me and Brad. And I have to admit to you, that can be rather intimidating. And I was intimidated. Especially when the President of the United States says your client broke the law. Especially when congress members say your client deserves the death penalty.

I want to tell you, though, today as I stand here I'm no longer intimidated. I am not intimidated because when I stand up I know I'm not standing alone. I know I'm not alone because I turn around and I see the support behind me. I see members here today in the audience that are there every time we have a court hearing. I see what I am not going to affectionately call the 'truth batallion,' those who wear a black shirt. It has the word 'truth' on it, and they are behind me. And when I look there, I know that I also have unlimited personnel and unlimited resources."
You can watch the speech here.

You can help with Bradley Manning's legal defense by donating here.

And you can wish Bradley Manning luck and safe passage by writing to him here:
Commander, HHC USAG
Attn: PFC Bradley Manning
239 Sheridan Ave, Bldg 417
JBM-HH, VA 22211
Before you write, see these restrictions about what mail Manning can and cannot receive.


12.15.2012

mr. monk and the loyal viewer

It's a rare television show that gets me so engrossed in the characters that I actually begin to care about them. It takes great writing, great acting, and probably more than anything, great characters.

I've just finished the entire series of "Monk," which I've been watching end-to-end on Netflix. The last network TV show I remember liking in the same can't-put-it-down way was "Veronica Mars," which I had never heard of until a friend lent me the series on DVD. (Thank you!!) I'd watch one episode after the next until I would finally force myself to go to sleep.

I read about "Monk" when it first aired; critics loved it and lobbied for it to stay on the air, but it was never broadcast in our area. A few years ago I started catching episodes on late-night cable, and really liked it. Netflix (and Roku) gave me the chance to watch the entire series.

"Monk" follows a well-worn path: a brilliant but damaged detective (they always have a "thing") sees what no one else does, and solves cases that no one else can. What makes this show stand out is the amazing acting of Tony Shalhoub, and the mix of humour and pathos that surrounds the main character, Adrian Monk.

Turns out it's a good thing I saw random episodes before watching it on Netflix. When I went back to the beginning, I discovered - as is so often the case - that the first season was not quite there yet. The show hits its stride towards the end of Season 1, and really takes off in Season 3. (For you Monk fans out there, I think the show really gelled with the introduction of Traylor Howard, who played Natalie.)

Excellent TV shows are also distinguished by if and how characters grow and change. In Monk, our hero has been devastated by the murder of his wife, his one and only true love. As years pass, you would expect to see some change in that condition. At the same time, detective Adrian Monk struggled with phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder long before the traumatic event, so in order to be believable, change can't come too quickly or look too conventional.

This is really where the show excelled. In the seventh (penultimate) season, there are ever-so-subtle signs that Adrian Monk is making progress. Nothing hits you over the head; the show trusts the viewer to understand. By the eighth and final season, it's clear that Mr. Monk is actually changing, yet the changes are always in character, and still small enough to be believable.

The two-part series finale, which I just finished, was brilliant - suspenseful, emotional, both joyful and sad.

You know when you love a book so much that you're sorry when you read the final page? I think the highest compliment I can pay this show is to say I'll miss it.

rtod: children in pakistan are as important as children in connecticut

We've endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years. And each time I learn the news, I react not as a president, but as anybody else would as a parent. And that was especially true today.

I know there's not a parent in America who doesn't feel the same overwhelming grief that I do. The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.

-- President Barack Obama, after a man opened fire in a Connecticut school, killing 27 people, including 20 children
Revolutionary thought of the day:

Children in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Gaza, and every place in the world are also beautiful.

They also have their entire lives ahead of them. They also deserve to see birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.

What happened in Connecticut, like every mass murder, is an abomination.

What happens from the US's drone warfare is no less an abomination.

I don't doubt that Obama's tears are real. We all felt that horror.

But the US military, headed by that same Barack Obama, says children are legitimate targets.

Whose children?

12.14.2012

unrelenting austerity and the promise of self-reliance: a blog from greece

A friend sent me a link to this blog, written by a man from the UK, a Socialist Workers Party activist, now retired and living on the Greek island of Samos. It's a picture from of life under extreme austerity - how people are suffering, but also how they are coming together.

It's very scary. People are living under the harshest of conditions. Too often, the response is scapegoating and violence. Attacks on undocumented immigrants, Roma, and others read like European history repeating itself in the worst possible ways.

Yet this blog also highlights the seeds of hope. Grassroots initiatives are forming, people are coming together, sharing resources, finding ways to cope.

I read this and think, there is no way out but revolution. I challenge anyone to read this blog and come up with a better idea.
Today I had an e mail from Patras. In it my close friend Dora relayed that there were many diverse grass roots initiatives emerging in Patras. Many were still fragile and unsure of their direction, but there were some promising signs such as the coming together in some of the projects of undocumented people and refugees (of whom there are many in Patras given the port link to Italy) with other poor Greeks. Groups of women were forming responding to the massive pressure they face as they try to keep, mainly in isolation from one another, their households afloat.

Dora, along with other progressive social workers, have recently formed a group which rejects the top down pathologising and surveillance role of what passed for ‘official’ social work. Instead they are committed to working alongside and in solidarity with the community and neighbourhood impulses under way. They want to use their skills and knowledge in the service of the people according to priorities determined collectively.

It is early days, as Dora never fails to tell me. For myself, I am nourished by her news. “Digging where they stand” as social workers they are committed to developing and creating wholly new forms of welfare practice. They are drawing on experiences from elsewhere, especially the work of Freire in Brazil, and looking at the ways in which over years of community and social engagement in poor and oppressed neighbourhoods organisations such as Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Zapatistas in Mexico built their support. We need more of these initiatives.

The sense of movement, of emergent grass roots initiatives from health provision by teams of doctors and nurses, to food banks, clothing exchanges, markets, cafes and cultural events, is simply not reflected or covered in the Greek mainstream media. If there is any coverage it is episodic like the farmers’ initiative earlier in the year with the free distribution of potatoes and onions. . . .

As expected the austerity measures were passed. . . . The latest austerity measures include draconian cuts in public employment and according to Paniotis it looks likely that the state hopes to dismiss 2,000 teachers every 3 months for the next year.

There are no strikes today so went with Georgos to discuss with the electricity company what they can do about the disconnection. Just before leaving for Samos town from Karlovassi a couple of electricity workers called at the house to check that the meter had not been tampered with and illegally re-connected. We later learnt from the manager in the central office that these checks would be made randomly and regularly and if they should re-connect illegally they could expect a prison sentence.

In some parts of Greece there have been successful community campaigns both preventing disconnections and reconnecting where it has been cut. YouTube even has a do it yourself video guide of how to reconnect your supply. The response of the company has been to remove the cable to the house following a fixed time period after disconnection making it much more difficult to restore the supply. . . .

Without any fuss we got to see the manager. He was a young guy, very sympathetic but bound by regulations that offered little. Even with the property tax element (now included with the electricity bill) removed, the company would need 75% of the debt to be repaid before reconnecting and making any arrangements for the collection of the remaining debt. In this case it amounts to 760 euros. It may as well be 10 million euros as far as Georgos and Dimitria are concerned.
None of us need any more reading material, but I plan on following this blog.

post your slow-cooker recipes and tips here

I just bought a slow-cooker, the first one I've owned. Do you use one? If so, what are your favourite things to make with it? Any tips or suggestions? I know there a zillion slow-cooker recipes online, but I'd like to hear what friends and readers like. Thanks!

workers rising: global day of action against walmart

In the US, on the biggest shopping day of the year, Walmart workers in 47 states took action against the abusive, illegal retaliatory practices of their behemoth employer.

Today, workers in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, India, Nicaragua, Zambia and South Africa will show solidarity with those US workers with a Global Day of Action against Walmart. This will include a moment of silence for the 112 workers who died in a Bangladesh factory fire on November 24.

To read about why this is necessary and long overdue, go here. Also: Wal-Mart's Killer Rollbacks: The Human Cost of Lower Prices by Michael Laxer.

fighting for democracy in the courts and in the street: #idlenomore, democracy 24/7

I no longer see TV news, but I have it on good authority that if your primary news source is CBC's The National, you haven't been hearing about two important developing - and exciting - stories.

Idle No More is a campaign led by First Nations peoples to fight back against Canada's destruction of natural resources and its continued profiting from Native lands. The movement, including a hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence, is being framed as opposition to the Harper Government's latest omnibus budget bill (C-45). It is that, but it's also much more. In their own words:
MANIFESTO

We contend that:

The Treaties are nation to nation agreements between Canada and First Nations who are sovereign nations. The Treaties are agreements that cannot be altered or broken by one side of the two Nations. The spirit and intent of the Treaty agreements meant that First Nations peoples would share the land, but retain their inherent rights to lands and resources. Instead, First Nations have experienced a history of colonization which has resulted in outstanding land claims, lack of resources and unequal funding for services such as education and housing.

We contend that:

Canada has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world by using the land and resources. Canadian mining, logging, oil and fishing companies are the most powerful in the world due to land and resources. Some of the poorest First Nations communities (such as Attawapiskat) have mines or other developments on their land but do not get a share of the profit. The taking of resources has left many lands and waters poisoned – the animals and plants are dying in many areas in Canada. We cannot live without the land and water. We have laws older than this colonial government about how to live with the land.

We contend that:

Currently, this government is trying to pass many laws so that reserve lands can also be bought and sold by big companies to get profit from resources. They are promising to share this time. . . Why would these promises be different from past promises? We will be left with nothing but poisoned water, land and air. This is an attempt to take away sovereignty and the inherent right to land and resources from First Nations peoples.

We contend that:

There are many examples of other countries moving towards sustainability, and we must demand sustainable development as well. We believe in healthy, just, equitable and sustainable communities and have a vision and plan of how to build them.

Please join us in creating this vision.
You can read more background in this excellent article: Idle No More: There's good reason the Natives are Restless by Chelsea Vowel, who blogs as âpihtawikosisân, and follow the movement on Twitter at #IdleNoMore. Also worth reading: Elizabeth May's speech in opposition to C-45: Bill C-45 is an affront to democracy.



If you subscribe to the Council of Canadians' email list, you've been receiving daily updates on one of the most important court cases of our time: the election fraud challenge.

By now we should all know this is not about robocalls. It's about the Conservative Party's widespread and sustained pattern of vote suppression. That is, election fraud. That is, stolen election.

It's bad enough when up to 49% of votes in any riding can be wiped out by the first-past-the-post system. But when individual voters are singled out for vote suppression based on their past patterns of voting... we are in deep trouble.

I highly recommend following the proceedings, which began this past Monday, December 10. There are multiple ways to access it - live blogs, live tweets, daily updates - all listed here.

The Conservatives are represented by one of the richest law firms in Canada (where I used to work!). The side representing defrauded voters - representing us - is being financed by ordinary Canadians, chipping in a few dollars at a time. You can donate any amount to the Democracy 24/7 Fund. Personally, I can't make a large donation, but when I have an extra $10, I email it to this fund. Over time, those tens add up.

12.12.2012

our first video: backyard play

Finally, a video of Tala and Diego!



How silly am I? Now that we have video capability, I felt sad that we don't have video of all our past dogs, the ones who are gone. And because of this, I didn't want to take videos of these dogs!

Very silly. I finally decided to not let that stop me anymore. So we just taught ourselves the basics: shoot, edit, convert, upload. Ta-da. It's not exactly professional quality, but it's good enough for YouTube.

This video is actually a test. More fun to come.

a great date


It's 12.12.12! To all my fellow obsessives, enjoy the day!

12.11.2012

more signs of life in the labour movement: non-union workers rising

Of all the reasons for hope that we've seen in recent times - Wisconsin, the Occupy Movement, the Quebec students' actions, the Chicago teachers' strike - this trend gives me the most joy and the most hope. Here are three stories of non-unionized workers organizing themselves to change conditions in their own workplaces.

In September, New York City restaurant workers walked off the job and won a historic victory against their oppressive and vindictive employer.
The restaurant workers who were fired and locked out of their store for organizing a union have won after a week of escalating protests outside the Manhattan cafe. Saturday afternoon, the owner declared that he had bowed to the workers demands to reopen the store, rehire all the workers and recognize their newly formed union, an inspiring labor victory at a time when many are attacking the power of unions.

The 23 workers at the Upper East Side Hot and Crusty, which is one of a string of 24-hour cafes in New York City, have been organizing against the chain's exploitative boss for nearly a year. After enduring below minimum wage pay and verbal and sexual harassment, the workers reached out to labor organizations and began attending Occupy Wall Street meetings last fall. With the support of OWS and the Laundry Workers Center, a volunteer organizing group, the workers organized an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, this spring. They won thousands of dollars in backpay and safer workplace conditions.

Two weeks ago, however, the workers learned that the owner, private equity investor Mark Samson, planned to close the restaurant and fire all the workers. . . .
Read more here. Go, read more! It's great.

More recently in New York City, 200 fast-food employees walked off their jobs, demanding a $15/hour minimum pay. (You try to live in New York City on $7.25/hour. It can't be done.)
Two hundred workers from dozens of fast food outlets in New York City—including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Domino's, and Taco Bell—walked off their jobs Thursday morning to demand $15 an hour in pay and the right to form their own independent union, according to the organizers of Fast Food Forward.

It is the largest strike ever in the United States against the $200-billion-a-year fast food industry and represents the latest in a wave of collective actions by low-wage workers to change conditions in their industries and, in many cases, to form unions. . . . .

Bill Young, 26, went on strike from a McDonald's near 40th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. "It's kind of hard dealing with things on a low income," he said. He makes $7.25 an hour, and unlike many fast food workers he typically works 40 hours a week, even though his work hours are erratic and can be spread over six or seven days of part-time work. "If you think about it," he said, "it's still not enough" to pay rent ($550 a month, nearly half his pre-tax income), help support his two children (one of whom lives with him), and meet other basic expenses.

"It's the money," he said, explaining why he is striking and wants a union, "but it's also the favoritism, no benefits, the schedules — our schedules change every week. It's hard for me to go back to school or get my daughter." A high school drop-out, he wants to go to culinary school, but he can't due to McDonald's erratic scheduling. Young also says his manager makes employees do many tasks "off the clock," illegally forcing them to work without pay before or after punching in. (According to a second employee, the manager has been fired.)

Fast Food Forward started organizing among the 50,000 fast food workers in New York City at the start of the year. Its sponsors are community, labor, clergy and other groups, including United New York (a coalition), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and New York Communities for Change, a successor to the defunct community organization ACORN and the main organizing force for Fast Food Forward and in the formation of unions to lift up standards for the burgeoning low-wage economy. "We can't wait for the economy to produce better jobs," said Jonathan Westin, the lead organizer on Communities for Change's fast food worker campaign. "The economy won't grow as long as people's paychecks are so low. It's that simple." . . . .

In New York, Raymond Lopez, 21, a shift manager after 2.5 years at a McDonald's in Midtown, also has to work a part-time job to supplement the $8.75 he makes at McDonald's. Still, "that's not enough to make ends meet," he said, especially when he's paying $600 a month in rent for his single room. "These companies could pay more, a reasonable wage, and still make money."

Although he was off work today, he still considered himself one of the 14 or so strikers from his McDonald's, which has about 40 total employees. More workers support the idea of a union, he said, but they're afraid of losing their jobs. "I still am a little nervous," Lopez acknowledged in a phone interview from a picket line, but the Walmart strike helped. "We were still going to do it anyway, but it shows it can be done....I'm going to work tomorrow, but there's so much attention to this strike, it would be smart for them not to fire us."

"I know things are not going to change overnight," he said. "One strike is not enough. But we'll go with the flow."
The fast-food industry is maintained by underpaid workers all through the supply chain (as well as exploited and abused animals). Michelle Chen of in these times reports on food supply chain workers adopting the tactics of the radical labour group IWW. (Yes, it's another Wobblies reference at wmtc! Just wait til I read this book!)
Once upon a time in the labor movement, a rebellious vanguard emerged at the margins of American industry, braiding together workers on society’s fringes — immigrants, African Americans, women, unskilled laborers — under a broad banner of class struggle.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, raised hell in the early 20th century with unapologetically militant protests and strikes.

Their vision of a locally rooted, globally oriented anti-capitalist movement was eclipsed by mainstream unions, which had more political muscle. But grassroots direct action is today undergoing a resurgence in the corners of the workforce that have remained isolated from union structures.

Such alternative campaigns have a special resonance in today’s food industries, which employ the roughly 20 million people (one-sixth of the total workforce) who harvest, process, distribute and sell the food we eat. This marginalized, low-wage group is hungry for organizing models that move as nimbly as the corporations that run the production chains. The IWW’s signature organizing model, syndicalism (which prioritizes direct action in the workplace), meshes with the growing trend in the labor movement toward less bureaucratic labor groups, such as worker centers and immigrant advocacy campaigns. Flexible mobilization that doesn’t require formal votes or union certification is well-suited to precarious laborers seeking to outmaneuver the multinationals.

Since 2007, the Wobbly-affiliated coalition Focus on the Food Chain (FOFC) has empowered workers in New York City’s food sectors to challenge abusive employers on the streets and in the courts. The group—an alliance between the local IWW and the advocacy group Brandworkers International—aims to “carry out member-led workplace justice campaigns to transform the industry” and focuses on the oft-neglected links between farm and fridge. According to Brandworkers Executive Director Daniel Gross, these processing and distribution industries are a “sweatshop corridor.”

“The business model,” he says, “is exploitation of recent immigrants.”

But in New York, the workers at these companies—some of which cater to high-end natural gourmet markets—are tied into the local food system as consumers as well. So groups such as Brandworkers envision empowering working-class communities holistically, with well-paying jobs that ensure families’ access to the literal fruits of their labor. In the long term, Gross says, FOFC aims to “transform this sector to provide the good manufacturing jobs that we want to see and to create a sustainable food system that provides fresh local food.”

That vision is far from fulfilled, but workplace-based campaigns have yielded victories. In Brandworkers’ lawsuit against the Queens-based distributor Beverage Plus, a federal court awarded $950,000 in damages to Latino warehouse workers and drivers who complained of wage theft and harsh working conditions, including up-to-12-hour days. FOFC also challenged local kosher foods producer Flaum Appetizing, a company notorious for underpaying and abusing immigrant employees. In a two-pronged strategy, FOFC launched a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board for discriminatory retaliation against immigrant workers, and also worked with an Orthodox community activist group to pressure some 120 grocery stores to stop doing business with Flaum until it met workers’ demands. The disputes ended earlier this year, with workers winning a $577,000 settlement.

On a national scale, advocacy and
 community groups (including Brandworkers) have organized the Food
Chain Workers Alliance, promoting economically and ecologically sustainable ways of eating. Member groups have campaigned for the rights of restaurant staff and of child farmworkers, and have established “fair food procurement” principles to pressure employers for solid wages, better working conditions and the use of local food.
Read more here.

from greece to chicago to toronto, workers fighting back against austerity

Working my way backwards, this the second of four talks I attended that I'll be reporting on.

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The most important internationalist event in decades

In November, I heard Nikos Loudos of the Socialist Workers Party in Greece (by Skype) and Canadian activist and organizer Carolyn Egan speak about the recent general strike in Europe, and the fight against austerity at home and abroad.

It was after 1:00 a.m. in Greece, but Nikos was full of energy. He reminded us, "I cannot complain, there are people who have bigger problems". In Brussels, the Eurogroup was staying up all night discussing "the Greek problem". Greece was supposed to get $30 billion in aid - "which all goes to the bankers," Nikos reminded us - but the money was still not forthcoming, because Germany, the Eurogroup, and the IMF were not able to come to terms.

These problems from the other side, the ruling class, are behind the general strike of November 14, which Nikos called "the most important internationalist event in decades". It was the first time that organizers in four countries acted together: Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece. It also marked the first time ever that workers in Spain and Portugal, countries that are very differently politically, were able to coordinate actions. You should not be surprised to learn the short version of how this happened: rank and file organizing - ordinary workers pushing union leadership to act.

In all, there were actions and events in 23 countries. Some were one-day strikes, some were partial strikes in specific sectors, some were demonstrations and rallies. The greatest participation was in Spain, were there were massive strikes and demos.

You can keep the lights on, but we all know no one is home

Nikos noted that local governments kept the lights on in their (empty) buildings, so it would appear that people were working, and they could claim the strike was less successful than it was. The conservative media said the strike was a disaster, of course, but the media could report on nothing else - and therefore, the strike was a success.

Events in Italy were also very important. Unions there were under pressure for months to call a general strike, with union "leadership" avoided it. But under pressure from the European-wide event, the largest union in Italy called a four-hour strike, and more militant unions went on 24-hour strike. There were occupations of railway stations, tram and metro stations, and huge contingents of students organized blockades and pickets. (What's that you say? You didn't read about this in the Canadian media?)

Even in countries where there weren't general strikes, there were still actions on November 14. In Belgium, there were railroad strikes. In France, there were 130 demonstrations nationwide. France's newly elected government said it would not impose the neoliberal austerity agenda, and many people who believed their lies now feel betrayed. The Europe-wide event gave them hope, gave them confidence to get out in the streets and demonstrate against austerity.

Workers were able to use the General Strike as a way to highlight their specific, local battles. For example, Turkish transit workers have been fighting huge cuts. The European General Strike gave them the confidence to go on a 24-hour strike.

Betrayal, anger, action

Many people thought November 14 might not be success. Then, one week earlier, there was a 48-hour strike. So many people participated, it was such a success, that it gave the workers so much confidence, and people threw themselves into organizing - even without union leadership.

That first 48-hour strike was borne of yet more betrayal. The Greek government had said that if the draconian austerity measures don't pass, Greece will not get EU aid. The austerity measures did pass - albeit barely - yet Greece still did not get aid.

The austerity measures were written up in a 700-page document, which lawmakers were given two days to read, and which had to be voted in an all-or-nothing, thumbs-up or thumbs-down, vote. The yes votes formed a very limited majority: 153 out of 300 votes. And with that the Greek people are plunged into even higher unemployment and the complete destruction of whatever social safety net remained after the last austerity cuts.

Nikos said, "It was a disgrace and the people felt it." That disgrace led to the 48-hour strike... which led to mass participation in the November 14 General Strike. Referring to that 153-member majority, Nikos asked, "What is the real majority here? The majority is outside, on strike, organizing. Inside, 153 people are passing this, saying, 'We must pass it, or tomorrow we won't have food.' Then the money didn't come, and the people were left with nothing."

Workers occupied 200 city halls around Greece. Mass meetings were held everywhere. The federal government demanded mayors make a list of workers who would be laid off immediately. Only 30 mayors provided a list. The rest said: "None."

Even with this excellent resistance from municipal governments, the workers didn't rely on the town elected leaders. Instead, they occupied town halls - especially the offices tasked providing the lists!

Despite how the government tried to frame this as a "battle with Brussels for Greece," the reality is that the government is very weak in parliamentary terms and even weaker in true political terms of leading the people.

"Yes, we just occupied, and you should do the same!"

Nikos told stories of administrative employees occupying a central building in their university. Again (and again and again) union leadership wanted to do nothing, but rank-and-file held mass meetings and led the way. This spread to other universities, other workers, with students striking in solidarity. Nikos recalled with amusement overhearing a nicely-dressed woman on her mobile saying, "Yes, we just occupied, and you should do the same."

Nikos told us that the November 14 date of the General Strike had great resonance in Greece, as November 17 is the anniversary of the uprising that brought down a dictatorship in 1973. Some Greek activists have suggested that they should stop marking this anniversary, as it's been almost 40 years. But, Nikos said, every year more young people participate, and people find new ways to connect that anniversary with present-day concerns. They usually march to the US embassy, because in 1973, the US (of course) supported the dictatorship. This year, they went beyond that, marching to the Israeli embassy to protest the massacre in Gaza. This is a sign of the austerity struggles generating more a general politicization, and a sign of solidarity across countries and across struggles.

On the other side, the governments' approach also leads to more political radicalization - on the right. The government uses the language of anti-immigrant racism and fascism to scare workers. Police have murdered migrant workers coming from Turkey, by damaging their boats. Nazi gangs try to control neighbourhoods, and the government warns that "this the alternative": it's us or fascism.

Fascism, racism, and the austerity agenda: resistance to all

Nikos said, despite the publicity the Greek Nazi party garners in mainstream press, the truth is, they have not succeeded in organizing a public presence anywhere, even in the neighbourhoods they claim to control. Trade unions are kicking out Nazi organizers in factories and from the unions. The fascists had gone into factories, trying to stir hatred and resentment towards migrant workers. Nikos said with a smile, "I won't give you the details, but I assure you, they won't try to do that again."

More people, he said, understand that the fight against fascism and racism cannot be separated from the fight against austerity, and the fight for workers.

An organizer in the room mentioned that Canadians fear the Greek fascist group Golden Dawn - which recently opened a chapter in Montreal. "It's heartening," he said, "to hear that people are fighting the growing threat of fascism along with the fight against austerity."

Nikos said that in Greece, all polls show that if an election was held now, the left would form the government. This, he said, is an ideological victory - a reflection of the struggle. The biggest political parties in Greece used to represent 40% of the political vote. Now they are taking 5% or less. Hundreds of thousands of people who used to vote for the neoliberal centrist parties have abandoned those parties for more grassroots, people-powered parties. Some have gone to the right, some to the left. So the Nazis may have gotten some votes. But they don't dare go into the streets.

* * * *

People on the local level, taking steps

Carolyn Egan thanked Nikos for his first-hand reports, noting that in North America, we don't get reports of these workers movements. That absence feeds people's pessimism about the prospect of fighting back. It also feeds the "North American exceptionalism" that we labour under.

Carolyn noted that what happened in Greece and throughout Europe was not an event, it was a process. There was no "big night of the barricades". There were, and are, workers building rank-and-file consciousness, smaller actions even in smaller unions, making strides forward, and pushing leadership to move forward.

It comes down to the actions of people on the local level, people taking steps in their own workplaces, bringing fellow workers out to actions. This puts pressure on leadership.

Carolyn ticked off the depressing series of setbacks labour has endured - the terrible, protracted Vale Inco strike in Sudbury, where workers were finally forced to go back, the Caterpillar lockout in London, Ontario, the Illinois Caterpillar strike where the union caved and settled, among others.

But, Carolyn reminded us, there have been many signs of hope: the Occupy Movement, the organizing in Wisconsin, and the ongoing struggle of the Quebec students, which has been massive and sustained.

There were potential strikes in Toronto as the city and workers faced municipal cuts, and both CUPE unions settled. This is demoralizing to workers, as people ask themselves, if our unions won't strike, what can we do?

What went right?

For an answer, we can look at areas where there's been forward movement. In Toronto, library workers didn't settle; their strike lasted 2-1/2 weeks. They didn't win everything, but they succeeded in pushing back the worst of the concessions. The library workers' union worked hard to build connections with other library workers and especially with the community who uses the library. Those links gave the workers confidence that a strike would have public. It gave them the strength and confidence to fight back.

Steelworkers in Alma, Quebec - a small Northern community, isolated from the political struggles of Montreal and Toronto - were locked out last December 31 when the mining giant Rio Tinto demanded huge concessions. Union members felt that union "leadership" was not providing enough support. They demanded the union give them energy and resources, and thet self-organized through the rank-and-file.

Steelworkers from Ontario traveled by bus to Alma to show solidarity - twice. Big solidarity rallies gave the Alma workers the confidence to stand strong and mount fightbacks. Other Rio Tinto workers followed suit, pushed back extreme concessions, and won good contracts - actually winning increases in salaries and benefits. (Don't cry for Rio Tinto, they're the third largest multinational corporation on the planet.) This all happened because workers took control, launching their own strike and demanding leadership follow.

In Wisconsin, labour had been battered. Unon "leadership" was aligned with the Democrats and partisan politics. But new leadership - real leadership without the quotes - came up through the rank-and-file. It started with the teachers' wildcat walkout, built through the firefighters union and the construction trades.

Typically, when people run for union office, they leave the workplace for a union office, and become separated from their sister and brother workers, beginning the symbolic and eventually political divide. In Wisconsin, one man broke that pattern, continuing to work in the workplace, determined to remain part of the rank-and-file. It worked. Pockets of resistance developed - and when things came to a head, they pushed it.

Rank-and-file, leading the way

Time and again, Carolyn showed, when workers are able to win lockouts and strikes, it's when rank-and-file were organized, and militant, and had the confidence to override complacent union leadership.

The best recent example of this must be the Chicago teachers' strike. Against all leadership advice, against the advice of Democrats who said it "the wrong time," that it would "hurt the election", the Chicago teachers fought back against public schools being closed and replaced with privatized, for-profit schools (so-called "charter" schools).

Rank-and-file educators linked up with the people they taught and their parents. The struggle wasn't framed and viewed as teachers fighting for their jobs. It was about teachers fighting for good education for their communities.

Rank-and-file in each school formed "contract action committees," then these real leaders ran for union leadership. They swept. And they brought this militancy to their workplace: 90% showed up for the strike vote and gave a full 97% strike mandate. On the picket lines, there were huge turnouts of students, parents, and other members of the community.

Time and again, Carolyn reminded us, we see the same thing. Union leadership tries to mute the struggle and get concessions. Only rank-and-file pressure will push them, then they'll run to the front to try to get ahead of it.

Right now we're seeing the slow return of rank-and-file militancy. Here in Canada and the US, we're not at the same same stage of struggle as our sisters and brothers in Greece and Spain. But we have opportunities, you never know when things will erupt.

* * * *

A related piece by Carolyn Egan: How workers can win.

* * * *

During the discussion period, we talked about the (then upcoming) Walmart actions on the day after US Thanksgiving. Stay tuned for a future post on other non-union workers organizing against oppressive conditions.