murdoch mysteries, abortion on tv, and maybe an anti-war reference, too

I always like to have a detective-mystery series to follow. I try many of them, like a few, and watch several episodes in a row as downtime relaxation. I recently started the Canadian "Murdoch Mysteries," which takes place in Toronto at the turn of the 20th Century. Back when we still had cable TV, I frequently saw promos for Murdoch Mysteries, but I thought it looked kind of cheesy. But when I recently clicked on it through Netflix, I discovered it's actually quite good. I'm now well into Season 2, and I'm finding the mysteries not obvious and the character development absorbing.

Very Canadian, and not only because it is set in Toronto

One episode was particularly interesting to me, and very Canadian, something you'd be most unlikely to see on US television. In "Shades of Grey," Season 2 episode 6, a girl is found dead. Dr. Julia Ogden, the pathologist who is Detective William Murdoch's friend, colleague, and love interest, reveals that the girl, Lilly Dunn, had been pregnant. It turns out that Lilly was not murdered by a lover who didn't want the child, but bled to death after an attempt at a self-induced abortion.

Detective Murdoch questions two known abortionists, plus Dr. Isaac Tash, who is an old friend of Dr. Julia Ogden. Murdoch's Roman Catholic faith is often referenced on the show - for example, when he is passed up for promotion because "Toronto is a Protestant town". And although Murdoch is progressive in matters of science, he is prudish and socially conservative.

In the course of the episode, we learn that Dr. Tash does perform abortions, and crucially, that Dr. Ogden herself had an abortion when she was in university. But these facts alone are not what makes this episode so noteworthy to me.

Abortion without apology

First, Dr. Tash, when questioned harshly by Murdoch, sounds like none other than Henry Morgentaler as he apologetically explains his choices.
Tash: If a woman comes to me needing or wanting an abortion, I do not turn her away. Whatever her reasons - poverty, abuse, ignorance, illness - I ask no questions. I make sure the procedure is done safely, properly, with the least amount of trauma to the patient.

Murdoch: You realize what you're doing by telling me this.

Tash: I do. And I may soon find myself dragged out of here in chains for all the world to see. But the truth is if Lily Dunn had come to see me, she'd be alive today. I know it and you know it.
Next, Julia speaks frankly to William.
Julia Ogden: Like Lily Dunn, I found myself in an untenable situation. I had no desire to marry the man. I wanted to be a doctor, William. It was everything to me. I had fought so hard for so long. Wanting a medical career was difficult enough. But with a child...

William Murdoch: It was a choice of convenience, then.

Julia: It was anything but convenient. It was what I had to do. [pause] I went to Isaac and asked for his help. He refused. He would absolutely not consider breaking the law despite his personal convictions. I was desperate. So I went elsewhere. The procedure was an unimaginable nightmare, I almost died. I would have died if it wasn't for Isaac. He saved my life. And after that, I know that he hoped never to have to watch another woman to go through what I did.

William: He saved your life, and for that I am more grateful to him than I can ever possibly say.

Julia: But he's still a criminal to you, isn't he? [No answer.] Of course he is.

William: This has nothing to do with you and I. We can put all of this behind us.

Julia: But how do you propose we do that? Are you willing to forgo your principles, your values, your faith?

William: I don't think that's necessary.

Julia: Don't you? I thought upholding the law was everything to you.

William: And that will never change.

Julia: What does that mean? Now that you know the truth, that I freely procured an abortion, what will you do? Will you jail me? Should I hang?

William: No, of course not.

Julia: So then, you'll make an exception for me.

William: I'll do what I have to do.

Julia: But that's just it, William. I don't want to be an exception. I don't want your pity. Or your mercy.

William: Do you regret it?

Julia: No.
That was amazing, refreshing - exciting. Julia was not raped. She did not surrender a child to adoption. And most of all, she isn't sorry. She chose abortion, a valid choice, and one she stands by. As Julia says, she did what she had to do. And now, she does not beg William to forgive her. She doesn't want exceptions: she wants enlightenment.

The tearful choice... the convenient pregnancy loss

Abortion is mostly invisible on American television. Few producers want to deal with the sponsorship headaches, the calls for boycotts. But beyond that, abortion has been made into an act of shame or desperation, a dark secret that no protagonist can freely choose without suffering dire consequences.

This story in The Week is an annotated timeline of abortions on American TV, beginning with the famous first, Bea Arthur's "Maude" in 1972. Ten years later on "Dallas," Lucy Ewing had an abortion after she was raped. The rape was used to justify Lucy's decision, the abortion still left her in a state of empty despair. There was no suggestion that the depression might have come from having been raped. The Week missed the Ewing abortion, but takes special note of the generally positive treatment of an abortion on "Friday Night Lights".
January 2010
Friday Night Lights: After a one-night stand with Luke, 10th-grader Becky (Madison Burge) becomes pregnant, and, afraid to talk to her mother about it, goes to her guidance counselor Tami Taylor (Connie Britton). After reading literature and learning about her options, Becky has an abortion. It's "the best and most honest portrayal of the heartrending decision to end a teenage pregnancy that we've ever seen," says Andy Greenwald at New York. Later, Luke's religious mother discovers that Mrs. Taylor counseled Becky on the decision, and ultimately gets her fired. Tellingly, there is little outrage over the episode, says Jessica Grose at Slate, hinting that perhaps the subject is no longer taboo.
The words "heartrending decision" make me wonder what I would have thought of this episode (I will look it up on Netflix). The decision for a teen is often anything but heartrending. It might be closer to "get this friggin thing out of me". But this example from "Grey's Anatomy" makes me hopeful for change.
September 2011
Grey's Anatomy: Years after considering an abortion and then miscarrying, Sandra Oh's Cristina Yang gets pregnant again. Her husband Owen (Kevin McKidd) wants her to keep the baby, but Cristina insists that she loves her job too much and wants to dedicate her life to it; a baby would make that impossible. It was "pretty radical," says Willa Paskin at New York. "It's common TV wisdom that whatever your reservations, once you see your child, you'll not only love it, you'll never regret having it."
The excellent analysts at TV Tropes have dissected the treatment of unwanted pregnancies on TV, on a page called "Good Girls Avoid Abortion".
When a female character has an unexpected and/or unwanted pregnancy, someone may allude to the possibility of abortion (usually without saying the 'A' word). However, she will likely not have an abortion for one of three reasons:

- She dismisses it immediately because of her religious/spiritual beliefs or upbringing, or because she distrusts the procedure (especially if it would involve a Back-Alley Doctor).
She thinks it over for a while, then decides that, no, she's going to keep the baby. This may be followed by a Convenient Miscarriage. Which, ironically, she will never be relieved by; she'll be sad because now she wanted it.

- She actually decides to have it done, but somehow things don't turn out as she expects, and her attempted abortion is aborted.

- If she actually goes through with the abortion, and doesn't suffer gruesome complications from the procedure, it's usually to show that she's a deeply damaged, screwed-up individual. If this happens, but it is played for laughs, it's a Black Comedy. If the male character who got her pregnant voices support for the abortion option, it's played as a Kick the Dog moment to show what a jerkass the guy is.
That nails it!

Just what are we saying here?

In another "Murdoch Mysteries" episode, Inspector Brackenreid, Murdoch's superior on the police force, is chatting with another man about their military service for Queen and Country. One says he fought in the Crimea and asks, "Where were you?" The other answers, "Afghanistan," to which the first replies immediately, "That was a mistake."

I grabbed the remote to see the scene again. In Canada, in 2008, "Afghanistan ... that was a mistake," echoes loudly. If nothing else, it reminds viewers just how long empires have been trying to secure that patch of Earth. Or perhaps it means what it says: Afghanistan was a mistake.

Fun with Victoriana

The show's Late Victorian-era setting is rich with possibility. Murdoch's "thing" - the sine qua non of TV detective shows - is the use of new-fangled scientific methods to solve crimes. Some of these methods were actually coming into use, and others are Murdoch's own inventions, steam-age prototypes of digital-age technologies.

The show often features historical characters; portrayals of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Nikola Tesla, Harry Houdini, and "Buffalo" Bill Cody and Annie Oakley are among the ones I've seen so far. There are other historical references, such as Toronto's gay subculture and the dangers and persecution gay people faced, and the so-called "home children," the vast child migration program that brought child labourers from impoverished English areas into the colonies.

Researching this post, I discovered that "Murdoch Mysteries" is now airing in the US, where it is called "The Artful Detective". Let's see if "Shades of Grey" causes a ruckus... or if it even gets aired.

new year's resolutions from our man woody guthrie

According to the good folks at WoodGuthrie.org, our hero Woody Guthrie wrote these New Year's resolutions, which he called "rulin's," in 1943.

Happily for us, an admirer at another website has transcribed them. Woody's rulin's are by turns sweet ("learn people better"), fanciful ("dream good"), and practical ("wear clean clothes"). Some are downright hilarious: "wash teeth if any".
33. Wake Up And Fight

32. Make Up Your Mind

31. Love Everybody

30. Love Pete

29. Love Papa

28. Love Mama

27. Help Win War — Beat Fascism

26. Dance Better

25. Play And Sing Good

24. Send Mary And Kids Money

23. Have Company But Don't Waste Time

22. Save Dough

21. Bank All Extra Money

20. Dream Good

19. Keep Hoping Machine Running

18. Stay Glad

17. Don't Get Lonesome

16. Keep Rancho Clean

15. Learn People Better

14. Listen To Radio A Lot

13. Read Lots Good Books

12 Change Bed Clothes Often

11. Change Socks

10. Shine Shoes

9. Wear Clean Clothes

8. Write A Song A Day

7. Drink Very Scant If Any

6. Eat Good — Fruit — Vegetables — Milk

5. Take Bath

4. Shave

3. Wash Teeth If Any

2. Work By A Schedule

1. Work More And Better
I like that someone at "Business Insider" posted this. I like to think The People have comrades hidden everywhere.

As we head into 2014, we need Woody Guthrie in our hearts more than ever. Thanks to Rob Wile for posting and to David Heap for passing it along.


what i'm reading: the immortal life of henrietta lacks, by rebecca skloot

I've just finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I’m sure many of you have read it, but if you have not, please run to your local library or bookstore or website and borrow, purchase, or download a copy immediately. This book is literary nonfiction of the highest order, a melding of social, cultural, and science history, and a triumph of research and writing.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman, a poor tobacco farmer who lived near and in Baltimore. Henrietta died of cancer in 1951, at the age of 31. She left behind five children, destined for poverty and all manner of abuse. She also left behind, without her knowledge, some cancer cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins University Hospital removed for study. Those cells, and their descendants, would help Jonas Salk to develop the polio vaccine, and would continue to form the basis of cell research around the globe for decades, continuing to this day.

Those cancer cells and their descendants are known as HeLa, short for Henrietta Lacks. While HeLa cells were multiplying around the globe, while students and scientists and doctors were studying HeLa, injecting HeLa cells into every type of test imaginable, the Lacks family had no idea that cells were taken from their mother and that those cells lived on. Twenty years later, the knowledge would rock their world.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is built around several intertwined stories. There's the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman: her life, her illness, her suffering, her family, her death. There's the story of HeLa, the cells, and their incalculable contribution to medical science. And there's the story of Deborah Lacks, one of Henrietta's daughters, a complicated, troubled, compassionate, striving, indomitable woman who Skloot describes as the most resilient person she ever knew.

There are also the moral, ethical, and legal implications of the HeLa story. Although textbooks referred to Henrietta Lacks as the “donor” of HeLa cells, Henrietta was never informed that doctors were taking her cells, she was never asked, and was never able to give consent. This fact places Henrietta Lacks in the context of a complicated story of race, poverty, genetics, and human experimentation. Skloot unpacks these issues in the clearest and most compelling manner I can imagine.

And finally, there is the story of Rebecca Skloot, and her obsession that drove her to uncover the real story behind both Henrietta Lacks and HeLa, and to befriend Deborah Lacks. The two would form an unlikely and powerful bond that would change them both.

This is also a book full of subplots and minor threads, two of which I found particularly compelling, and unbelievably sad. One of Henrietta’s son, Deborah’s brother, was horrifically abused (tortured, really) after his mother's death. As an adult, he is violent and out of control, unable to master his constant anger. At one point in the book's narrative, he is sleeping on the street, signing up for medical experiments in exchange for food and a bed. In his story, we also get a glimpse of the transforming power of love and respect.

Another of Henrietta's children, and another subplot of the book, was Elsie, the sister Deborah never knew. Elsie had epilepsy, and at least partial deafness, and possibly other mental disabilities. When Henrietta could no longer care for her, the family talked her into putting Elsie in an institution. I'll stop there to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say Elsie's story was, for me, the very saddest part of this book.

One of the book's many fascinating subplots looks at the history of medical experiments on human subjects. Many of us are familiar with some of the more egregious examples of nonconsensual human experimentation, such as the Nazis performed on inmates of their death camps, or such as the Tuskegee experiments. But did you know that medical experiments were routinely performed on prison inmates in the U.S., without their consent? That patients in a hospital for a routine surgery might be injected with cancer cells, but told they were being inoculated against infection? The story of human experimentation without informed consent in the United States is shocking even to those of us who hold no illusions about that country.

The hidden history of how these hideous practices began to change - begun by an act of resistance from three doctors - is also fascinating. Scientists cried that informed consent would be the death of science, that without uninformed human subjects, all medical advancement would come to a halt - just as they claim today about experiments on animal subjects.

By coincidence, I recently read Home, Toni Morrison's 2012 novella, which touches on the so-called "Mississippi appendectomy," the forced sterilization of poor African-American women by white doctors. So when the Lacks family fears that the Johns Hopkins doctors did something evil to their mother, those fears must be seen in context of this very painful history. The review in The Guardian notes:
The dark, inhuman face of unpoliced science shows itself throughout this story, side by side with the bright face of discovery and humanitarian advance. The ironies are no less bitter because they are plain: today, Henrietta's descendants cannot afford health insurance. Henrietta was buried in an unmarked grave, in a cemetery with her black ancestors, and with white ancestors who, when the author inquired, would not acknowledge her.
Skloot’s journey with the Lacks family and the triumphant book that it produced are a nonfiction writer’s dream. Here the journalist’s story is not just about persistence and obsession (although it is certainly that) but also about patience, honesty, empathy, and trust. Skloot worked hard to win Deborah Lacks' trust - constantly and repeatedly - and both sides were amply rewarded.


what i'm watching: not love, but crap, actually

Tonight I tried again to watch "Love Actually", and once again am left shaking my head in disgust (at the movie) and disbelief (in its popularity, among people who ought to know better). Why does everyone love this movie? Why is it hailed as the great ode to love and romance and a beloved holiday-season classic? It is not romantic. It is not funny. It is crap.

I should start by saying that I didn't want to see "Love Actually". The presence of Hugh Grant alone is enough to drive me away. But so many people - people I respect! people with brains and thoughtful opinions! - said that they liked it. One smart man said the movie had "all the markers of a movie I should hate," but he ended up thinking it was wonderful. All right, then. I'll give it a go. Costs me nothing. Wrong!

Tonight I tried a third time to watch the film (the first two tries unsuccessful), so that I could tally (a) fat jokes, (b) older male bosses drooling over too-young subordinates, and (c) moments of intrusive, manipulative soundtrack, but I lost count and gave up. This is a movie so heavy-handed - and with so little respect for its audience - that it must break out into loud, sweeping Romance Music every time Feelings Are Present. Did you hear that? That there's the sound of Feelings! Get it, didya, huh? Here it comes again, listen to the Big Music, kiddies, Feelings again!

Feelings of some kind, but not love. Love is not present. Hardly ever. One would-be lover after the next can't tell the difference between love and lust. Nothing wrong with lust. I'm all for lust. But this is supposedly a movie about love. And no romantic comedy worth two hours of your life confuses the two.

Christopher Orr, in The Atlantic, calls "Love Actually" "the least romantic film of all time". He writes:
I think it offers up at least three disturbing lessons about love. First, that love is overwhelmingly a product of physical attraction and requires virtually no verbal communication or intellectual/emotional affinity of any kind. Second, that the principal barrier to consummating a relationship is mustering the nerve to say “I love you” — preferably with some grand gesture — and that once you manage that, you’re basically on the fast track to nuptial bliss. And third, that any actual obstacle to romantic fulfillment, however surmountable, is not worth the effort it would require to overcome.

Begin with the elevation of physical attraction over any of the other factors typically associated with romantic compatibility: similar likes and dislikes, overlapping senses of humor, shared values, what have you. Grant falls in love with McCutcheon the first time he speaks with her — “Get a grip,” he chides himself moments afterward — when essentially the only thing he knows about her is that she accidentally uses profanity a lot. (Charming? Sure. Evidence of a soul mate? Unlikely.) Firth and Moniz, meanwhile, fall in love despite not sharing a word of language in common. Moreover, the movie telegraphs very clearly that the moment when Firth really falls for Moniz is when he watches her strip down to her underwear.

The film is a considerable outlier among romantic comedies in its rigorous conviction that people don’t even need to learn anything about each other to confirm their initial attraction.

The pattern is repeated throughout the film.
Some of the supposed romances - like Grant's - are merely ridiculous and non-credible. But others are downright disgusting. Alan Rickman lusts after his beautiful and sexually available assistant. He buys expensive jewelry for the object of his desire, which his lovely and age-appropriate but same-old-same-old wife Emma Thompson finds in his pocket. Thompson marvels, thinking Rickman wants to re-kindle their romance... until she finds a Joni Mitchell CD under the tree. Rickman is well pleased with himself for remembering that his "cold English wife" "still" listens to Joni Mitchell, even though her clothes look like Pavarotti's hand-me-downs, and why are we following this story? Where is the love, actually?

Another supposedly romantic plotline sees a man stalking his best friend's wife, because... because... because she is so hot! Back to Orr here.
Creepiest of all is the storyline involving Lincoln and Knightley. Why is he so desperately in love with his best friend’s bride? Well, it’s not the result of any conversation they’ve had or experience they’ve shared, because the movie is at pains to note that he’s barely spoken to her and he goes out of his way to avoid her company. Indeed, the video tribute to her bridal radiance that he records at her wedding makes pretty clear what it is about her that so captivates him. (Hint: not her mind.) And he, too, like Neeson, ultimately suggests that the only way he will ever get over this love of his life is by hooking up with a supermodel. I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with this subplot—the movie’s worst—which somehow manages to present the idea that it’s romantic to go behind a friend’s back to ostentatiously declare your everlasting love for his wife. But let’s not get off track.

This is the point at which defenders of the film will reply, reasonably enough: So what? In movies beautiful people always fall in love with other beautiful people! What’s wrong with love at first sight, anyway? Which are both fair responses, as far as they go. But Love Actually is a considerable outlier among romantic comedies in its rigorous conviction not only that people fall in love without really knowing one another, but that they don’t even need to learn anything about each other to confirm their initial attraction.

This is not some abstruse or esoteric component of high-end cinema. The core of most romantic comedies — the core, for that matter, of most romantic comedies written and/or directed by Richard Curtis — is one form or another of mutual exploration between potential lovers. Some movies do it well and some do it poorly, but almost all at least make an effort to do it. The protagonists bicker their way into love (27 Dresses, Sweet Home Alabama, Something's Gotta Give ...). The guy gradually persuades the gal that he’s worthy, or vice versa (Groundhog Day, Knocked Up, Working Girl ...). One helps the other overcome a foolish obsession with a Mr. (or Mrs.) Wrong (The Wedding Singer, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, While You Were Sleeping ...). The free spirit teaches the control freak to let go and embrace life (Along Came Polly, Pretty Woman, The Ugly Truth ...). Opposites discover that they are attracted (Two Weeks Notice, Notting Hill, Maid in Manhattan ...). Etc., etc. My point is in no way to suggest that these are all good movies. (They’re emphatically not.) Rather it is to point out just how far outside the ordinary it is that none of Love Actually’s fated couples spends any meaningful time getting to know one another at all.
And let's not even start on the sexism. Maybe it makes sense in a movie where lust is mistaken for love that women are portrayed exclusively as objects, and anyone whose bones aren't visible in an off-shoulder top is fat-shamed, and a woman who takes care of her mentally ill sibling will die alone because all that nurturing gets in the way of sex, and fathers tell their creepily mature 11-year-old sons that the only way to get over the death of the great love of your life is by having crazy sex with a supermodel.

So maybe all that hideous sexism is to be expected. But it's still disturbing. For the low-down on that, read this skewering review at Jezebel.

Perhaps the only honest line in the entire film is Joni Mitchell's rich contralto singing, "I really don't know love at all." You don't suppose Richard Curtis is commenting on his own film?


before the onion, before the yes men, there was the post new york post

One day, as I was getting off the subway on my way from Brooklyn to my workplace on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, people were handing out these tabloids. I never learned who made them, where they came from, or where they went. But I'm so glad I saved my copy all these years.

It's a whole newspaper - news, sports, weather, ads for fake movies, personal ads. Brilliant. In case you can't read the date, it was 1984.

And special bonus from one decade later, The National OJ.

I had to scan them in two parts, but they are each tabloid size.

after eight years, i have a less-than-ideal observation about ontario health care

Since moving to Canada in 2005, my experiences with Ontario's health care system have been extremely positive. Through the public system, my partner and I have been able to access health care whenever we needed it, in convenient and pleasant settings, at no cost - that is, paid for with our taxes. The quality of care has been at least as good, and often superior, to anything I experineced in the United States.

I love our public health care system, and I would love to see it expanded.* Single-payer, nonprofit health care is the only system that makes any sense.

When I fractured my foot, I experienced a flaw in the Ontario system for the first time. The consequences for me happened to be minimal, but many people are affected seriously, and negatively. And apparently, the flaw stems from attempts to improve the Ontario health care system.

Like many people, I had no idea that bones in my foot actually had fractured. I couldn't put any weight on my foot without excruciating pain, but it seemed impossible to have broken a bone doing essentially nothing! That day, I continued to limp on it, and iced it. The next morning, when the foot was swollen and purple, I realized something was wrong.

We waited about four hours at Urgent Care (which seems reasonable to me), got a temporary plaster cast, and was told to report to the fracture clinic the following day. At the fracture clinic (part of the hospital's outpatient services), I was seen by a technician, who removed the plaster cast, prepped my x-rays for the orthopedist, and even prepared the walking cast, knowing that's what the doctor would ask for. The clinic was a large room separated into cubicles by curtains. Every patient there was waiting to see an orthopedic surgeon.

The doctor came in, turned his head towards the x-ray for a split-second, told the technician to fit me in a walking cast, and continued on to the next patient. I am not exaggerating: the doctor was in my cubicle for less than five seconds. He glanced at the x-ray so quickly that I could hardly believe he saw it at all. He was in and out of the cubicle without breaking stride.

The technician explained the walking cast to me - when to use it, when I could remove it - and told me to book a follow-up appointment in six weeks.

That night, I was in quite a bit of pain and called the clinic to ask if I should be concerned. Someone answered my questions by phone, but I felt that a simple hand-out for patients would have been very helpful. Perhaps a few different variations of FAQs could cover most questions about fractures, saving staff time, saving patients concern, and potentially preventing patients from worsening their condition or even returning to the hospital unnecessarily.

The fracture clinic was extremely efficient; it was too efficient. Everything was so fast and bare-bones that I couldn't help but wonder if if quality was being compromised.

Six weeks later, back at the Clinic, I waited only briefly for another x-ray and another glance from a doctor. The technician told me to wear sturdy sneakers, and I was on my way.

Once out of the walking cast, I had painful muscle spasms in my calf and hamstring, and went for some massage. Before long, I also realized that six weeks of immobilization had badly weakened my injured ankle, already chronically weak. I knew I need physiotherapy and booked some appointments.

The physiotherapist told me that her professional community in Ontario is endlessly frustrated and upset by the outpatient fracture clinic. My experience was absolutely typical: blink and you miss the doctor's visit. In my case, the fracture was common and not complicated, and the diagnosis was correct.

But, said the therapist, in many cases patients are sent home without treatment... and when the pain doesn't go away, and they come back, they learn that the first doctor blew the call, missing a fracture.

In addition, said the therapist, patients are not given information on after-care, and no one suggests physiotherapy. This, of course, leads to slower and less complete healing.

But here's the most interesting part. The physiotherapist said that this assembly-line treatment is a result of the focus on reducing wait times. Hospitals are under so much pressure to reduce wait times and meet patient targets that quality is being sacrificed.

Reducing wait-times has been the over-riding goal of Ontario health care for several years. In the Canadian context, "wait-times" generally refers to waiting for treatment in hospital emergency departments, waiting for orthopedic surgeries like joint replacements, and waiting for cancer diagnosis and treatment. It does not mean how long you wait to see a doctor on the day of the appointment, as many USians think.

So it would seem that this aspect of our public health care has been a victim of its own success.

The answer, of course, is not privatization and it's not a two-tier system where people with means can opt out. The answer is a more fully-funded public system. In this case, the answer might be as simple as giving doctors five minutes more per patient.

* We have prescription drug coverage and dental insurance through my partner's job (and might through my job one day, too). If we didn't have that, a hefty chunk of our income would go towards prescription drugs, and perhaps in that case we would buy a private insurance package. The absence of dental and prescription coverage is a serious heath care gap, especially as fewer and fewer jobs include benefits. I wonder how much more coverage Ontario could afford if corporate taxes were restored to 1999 rates? How many fighter jets would buy us universal prescription coverage?


wmtc winter break goes low-tech

Every year I seem to break the holiest commandment of the holiday season: I'm not busy. I always hear how "everyone is so busy this time of year" and "this is such a crazy time of year, you can't get anything done," but that never reflects my experience.

We don't travel to see family, we have no extra social events, and we don't do Christmas shopping. Many years ago, we used to send a huge pile of winter-holiday cards, but we've gone digital with that, and we don't do it every year.

So Christmas is an extra day off, and here in the Commonwealth, we have Boxing Day, too. Two days off with nothing to do and no obligations. A strange scheduling glitch at the library gave me four days off in a row, which I am thoroughly enjoying. I'm reading, doing things around the house, and we're taking that final move-in step that never got done: hanging pictures.

And one more thing! Here's something else I'm doing with my un-Christmas winter holiday.

A few years ago, a Joy of Sox friend was cleaning out closets, and asked if anyone wanted some Sox-related jigsaw puzzles. I used to love puzzles, and hadn't done any since my days as a nanny in the mid-1980s. She sent them to me, but in our old house (pre-flood), we didn't have a spare table and didn't have the space. Where we live now, we have plenty of room to set up a card table, and my winter break gives me the perfect excuse.

The puzzle pictured above ended up like this.

After a brief period of admiration, this took its place.

So far it looks like this. The challenge of field and sky remains!

I find jigsaw puzzles very relaxing, and so addictive! When I was growing up, we often had a puzzle laid out on the dining room table. We would work on it together, or anyone who walked by would try to get a few pieces in. When I said this in a Joy of Sox gamethread, many people had similar memories.

Making these puzzles is also great for listening to music, for which I never have enough time. The little table I'm working on is beside our huge collection of LPs. Jigsaw puzzle plus vinyl, how low-tech can you go?


i hate christmas 2013: christmas in the public library

My annual I Hate Christmas post is a mixed bag this year.

Last year, I found Christmas less awful than usual, thanks to the absence of both commercial TV and my law-firm job. Those changes are permanent (at least I hope they are!), so I may never need to hide from Christmas quite as much, ever again.

On the other hand, Christmas at the public library is a grand opportunity for alienation. The decorations, the displays of children's Christmas books, the Christmas-themed storytimes... and everyone thinks it's all hunky-dory, as long as we stick to Santa and ignore Jesus. No crosses and no creche, but Santa's sleigh and Christmas music are everywhere.

How do our many Muslim and Hindi customers feel? Do they know they're not the only ones on the outside, looking in?

A colleague recently related how a customer asked if the library could do a Ramadan-themed storytime. My colleague was all in a huff. How inappropriate! Don't they know religion belongs at home? We are a public institution, we have separation of church and state! I said I wished that were true, and pointed out (or tried to) that the library does celebrate the holidays of one religion. She said she agrees that in our Christmas storytimes, we shouldn't use a lot of songs that mention Jesus. She said this without irony.

It seems that in this predominantly Christian country, the public consciousness makes a distinction between the religious Christmas and what is seen as a secular Christmas. Santa, elves, candy, and gifts are in; Jesus, Magi, and virgin births are out. But when you're not Christian, it's a false distinction. Christmas is a Christian holiday. And it doesn't matter that the form of the celebration has pagan roots. We're not celebrating solstice.

To my few colleagues (thankfully, not the majority) who are self-absorbed enough to recite the boring details on their shopping lists, I nod vaguely and make little pretence of caring. Perhaps they notice my blank expression, or how I'm not contributing to the "conversation" (really a monologue), and they ask if I'm celebrating Chanukah. One, Chanukah was in November this year, and two, Chanukah is a minor holiday. It's not "the Jewish Christmas", any more than Christmas is the Christian Yom Kippur.

In my vision of the public library, we'd celebrate winter and spring, not Christmas and Easter. We would acknowledge the most important dates of every major religion - Ramadan and Eid, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Solstice, Visakha Puja, Gantan-sai, and more - with displays and good cheer, just as we acknowledge Halloween and Thanksgiving. But we'd leave Christmas at home with Christians, where it belongs.


in which my library career takes another step forward

I am very pleased to announce that I've landed my first full-time librarian gig! It's a temporary position, for six months, in the "Readers' Den" Department of the Mississauga Central Library. Readers' Den takes in all the fiction, magazines, movies, and very importantly, the Youth department, both teen fiction and teen programs. I'll be working with teens again, something I love, I'll be sharpening my readers' advisory skills, and I'll be able to work as a full-time librarian while I wait for a permanent position to post.

Please forgive my bragging, but I must tell you that I totally aced the interview. I was told that I "blew it out of the water," and that offering me the position was a "no-brainer". Needless to say, this makes me feel pretty great!

As you may recall, I am nervous about working full-time. It will be a huge change for me. Even when I've worked more than full-time hours - school, part-time jobs, writing gigs, activism - I've always had a lot of flexibility, and enjoyed juggling many different facets of my life. Having one full-time job is scary. But I'm thoroughly enjoying the work, and I do want my career to advance, so this is a natural next step.

So here we go!


today is chelsea manning's fourth birthday behind bars

Private Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), who risked her freedom and her life so that people would see the truth about the US occupation of Iraq, is spending another birthday in prison. This is Manning's fourth birthday behind bars. She was held in solitary confinement (a recognized form of torture) for 10 months, and was sentenced to 35 years in prison for releasing the video now known as Collateral Murder and other information to Wikileaks. Not one person was harmed as a result of the information becoming public.

On the other hand, the men who cooked up the highly profitable invasion of Iraq continue to live in luxury, commanding high fees for speaking engagements, protected by President Barack Obama, never answering for their crimes. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and untold numbers of people wounded and families destroyed, because of their deceit and greed.

Until there is justice for Chelsea Manning, let's not forget her. You can write to Private Manning at this address:

Pvt. Bradley E. Manning
1300 N Warehouse Rd
Ft Leavenworth KS 66027-2304

Please address the envelope to "Bradley Manning," or it will be destroyed. In the letter itself, you can address Manning by her preferred name, Chelsea, and use "Ms." instead of "Private". Please be sure to write on plain paper, and send a letter only.

You can also donate to the ongoing fundraising efforts on Manning's behalf. If you give now, your contribution will be doubled by an anonymous matching donation.
Your year-end tax-deductible contribution will help Chelsea to:
• Receive more visits from her mother and aunt, who are themselves of limited financial means
• Pursue all legal avenues for possible reductions in sentence including clemency applications and appeals based on prosecutor misconduct
• Enroll in college courses and pursue a degree
• Receive medically appropriate treatment for her gender dysphoria, in particular Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and a legal name change, things which she has desired for some time and which doctors believe would help her to lead a happier and more fulfilling life.

We have raised $26,000 so far of the $40,000 needed to sustain these projects. As we approach both her birthday and the holidays, we would love nothing more than to be able to tell Chelsea that these projects were fully-funded. We know that many of you have given before, and we are grateful for that; but we are asking you to give what you can today to help us meet our goal, and give Chelsea some good news this holiday. She has sacrificed much in our interest, and we think it’s the least we can do.
You can donate here. If you have any trouble with that link (I did, repeatedly), you can go through Courage To Resist. Use the drop-down arrow at the "donate" tab.


open letter to james moore

To the Honourable James Moore, Minister of Industry:

In answer to your recent question, yes, it is your job to feed your neighbour's child. And it's my job, and it's my neighbours' jobs, too. It is all of our jobs to feed every hungry child, because we live in a society, and that's what society is for. It is appalling that anyone in government would ask such a question.

Mr. Moore, you may have been cornered into an apology by public outcry, and of course you tried the old "I was quoted out of context" route, but we know the truth when we hear it. And that comment was the true face of our Conservative government.


Revolutionary thought of the day:
...something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children's lives to settle its differences.

Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay


coming soon: let them stay week 2014

Maybe you thought we gave up and went away? Not a chance. The War Resisters Support Campaign is still working to make Canada a safe haven for people of peace and conscience.

Several US war resisters were forced out of Canada, court martialed, and given harsh prison sentences by the US military. Many more could no longer bear the uncertainty and surrendered themselves to the military. But some forty people who refused to participate in the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, along with their families, are still living in Canada. And we are still fighting for them.

About a month from now, the War Resisters Support Campaign will launch Let Them Stay Week 2014. From January 12th to the 19th, people all over Canada will take action on behalf of US war resisters. If your Canada is the country that offered refuge to people fleeing war and injustice - from the United Empire Loyalists, escaped slaves, and the Doukhobors, to the Mennonites and the Vietnam-era war resisters - please join us. This is not only about forty people and their right to conscience. This is about the kind of country you want to live in.

war resister kimberly rivera released from prison in u.s.

At long last, Iraq War resister Kim Rivera is out of prison and reunited with her family. This is great news, the best news. I should be thrilled, but the whole situation makes me so sad that I can't muster much joy.


it's human rights day: write for rights

I just now remembered that today is December 10, Human Rights Day, which celebrates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each year on this day, I try to participate in Amnesty's annual Write For Rights.

On December 10, hundreds of thousands of people around the globe write letters to, and for, individuals at risk. And these letters make a difference. Amnesty's letter writing campaigns have helped political prisoners get released, and have pressured governments into lessening repression. And one thing your letter is guaranteed to do: give someone hope. You can let a person in a very dark place know that she has not been forgotten.

I'm going to take 30 minutes tonight and write some letters. Maybe you can do the same. To learn what campaigns Amnesty is focusing on in your country, go here. If you're in Canada, go here.

Here's part of what I wrote on this day last year. Seems like good advice.

- be intimidated by the numbers of cases.

- be overwhelmed, thinking you have to write 10 or 20 letters.

- be cynical, thinking a letter does nothing.

- be too busy. You can find 15 minutes.


- resolve to write one letter, or maybe two.

- plan a time to write, today or tomorrow.

- pick a case that resonates with you.

- know that public pressure helps - that's why Amnesty has developed this program.

- offer someone comfort to someone in extremely difficult circumstances. Show them that they have not been forgotten.


herbert: mandela and king were not warm and fuzzy, they were hard-core revolutionaries

Bob Herbert in Jacobin:
I knew that the tributes would be pouring in immediately from around the world, and I also knew that most of them would try to do to Mandela what has been done to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: turn him into a lovable, platitudinous cardboard character whose commitment to peace and willingness to embrace enemies could make everybody feel good. This practice is a deliberate misreading of history guaranteed to miss the point of the man.

The primary significance of Mandela and King was not their willingness to lock arms or hold hands with their enemies. It was their unshakable resolve to do whatever was necessary to bring those enemies to their knees. Their goal was nothing short of freeing their people from the murderous yoke of racial oppression. They were not the sweet, empty, inoffensive personalities of ad agencies or greeting cards or public service messages. Mandela and King were firebrands, liberators, truth-tellers – above all they were warriors. That they weren’t haters doesn’t for a moment minimize the fierceness of their militancy.

Unlike King, Mandela accepted violence as an essential tool in the struggle. He led the armed wing of the African National Congress, explaining: “Our mandate was to wage acts of violence against the state… Our intention was to begin with what was least violent to individuals but most damaging to the state.” Ronald Reagan denounced him as a terrorist and Dick Cheney opposed his release from prison.

King was hounded by the FBI, repeatedly jailed, vilified by any number of establishment figures who despised his direct action tactics, and finally murdered. He was only 39 when he died. When King spoke out against the Vietnam war, characterizing the American government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” the New York Times took him to task in an editorial headlined, “Dr. King’s Error.”

. . . . These were not warm and fuzzy individuals, fantasy figures for the personal edification of the clueless and the cynical. They were hard-core revolutionaries committed with every ounce of their being to the wholesale transformation of their societies. When giants like Mandela and King are stripped of their revolutionary essence and remade as sentimental stick figures to be gushed over by all and sundry, the atrocities that sparked their fury and led to their commitment can be overlooked, left safely behind, even imagined never to have occurred.

It’s a way for people to sidestep the everlasting shame of past atrocities and their own collusion in the widespread horrors of racism that are still with us.
Read it here.

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #11

Customer: "Hi, can I print from a USB here? My printer at home isn't working."

Me: [I explain how our printing works: you buy a card, it costs such and such, etc.]

Customer: "I just want to print from my USB."

Me: [I explain how our printing works: you buy a card, it costs such and such, etc.]

Customer: "Someone said I could just come here and print."

Me: [I explain how our printing works: you buy a card, it costs such and such, etc.]

Customer: "Can't you just take my USB and print my stuff from your computer?"

Me: [I explain how our printing works: you buy a card, it costs such and such, etc.]

Customer: "I don't want to buy anything!" [Storms off.]


things i heard at the library # 10: weeding, the library's not-so-dirty, not-so-little secret

Wmtc readers have told me that they like the inner-workings-of-the-library posts, so I'm going to let myself write those whenever an idea comes up. That means the "things I heard at..." category becomes less literal... not unlike the title of this blog.

Did you ever wonder how a library manages to keep its whole collection on the shelves, when new books are coming out all the time? Where do all the books go? How can it all fit?

The answer: it doesn't. Space is finite, and the number of books in any collection, although also finite, is always expanding. That contradiction is resolved through weeding.

The walls won't expand, so the collection must shrink

This seems obvious to me now, but before I worked in a library, I never realized how often collections are weeded. Think of your own collection, your personal library. Perhaps you are that rare person who has never gotten rid of a book, a CD, a DVD, or (if you're old enough), an LP. Perhaps you live, and have always lived, in a huge house with vast amount of space, perhaps you've never changed addresses, perhaps you've never been forced to pare down your belongings. Or perhaps you're not acquisitive, you don't collect books or music, and all your possessions fit into a few small boxes.

But if you're like most (first-world, book-loving) people, over the years you have culled your collections. Maybe some books were in terrible condition. Maybe your interests have completely changed. Maybe what was once an important statement on your shelf is now just a dust-gatherer. Or maybe, like most bibliophiles, you simply do not have the physical space to keep every book you have ever read or might want to read!

The library has the same dilemma - but worse. Long ago, librarians wagged their fingers and preached about what people should read, and the collection reflected that attitude. (That's an interesting post for another day.) Those days are gone, and good riddance, in my opinion.*

The credo of the contemporary North American library is "give 'em what they want". That means we need to make space for 10 or 12 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games and the latest spy thrillers. We still want to offer older works that are widely read - say, 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Great Expectations. But we don't have the luxury of space to offer titles that no one ever borrows, no matter how worthy.

How it works

Weeding starts out simple enough.

We weed books in bad condition. Getting rid of torn and tattered books makes the entire collection look more appealing, and I think it treats library customers with more respect.

We weed books that are no longer relevant. No one needs science - or social science, or geography, or culture, or just about any nonfiction - from the distant past, and in many cases, not even from the recent past. There is value in a historical view of science, but that's not the public library's job. Information on the shelf should be current.

We weed duplicates and triplicates and taking-up-half-the-shelf-licates - titles that once warranted a whole slew of multiple copies, but whose popularity has waned, and now one copy will suffice.

But what happens when we get down to that one, final copy? Do we reorder? Our computer systems can tell us how many times the book has been checked out. If a book never circulates, or has only circulated once or twice, with space at a premium, it might get yanked.

In which I become an experienced weeder

Since my library education was almost completely devoid of practical information, I never even heard of weeding until I started working. But soon after I started, the Mississauga Library System began preparing to convert to self-checkout. That means that every single item in the entire system has to be tagged with an RFID sticker. It makes sense to weed thoroughly before, rather than after, that labour-intensive process. So I've had much opportunity to see weeding in action.

Recently, one of the system's smaller branches weeded a huge number of junior nonfiction titles from its collection, and they asked if the Central Children's library, where I work, would like them. Yes, please! I am the department point-person for junior nonfiction, so box after box of books were delivered to my desk. It's been great practice.

Almost all the junior nonfiction from the small branch was in excellent condition. It just wasn't circulating. I had to think about each title in terms of age, relevance, and what we already have in our own collection. An excellent book in good condition might be tempting, but if we already own five copies, do we need a sixth? Probably not. On the other hand, if it's a subject that kids always need for school projects, an extra title allows us to stretch our annual nonfiction budget.

So I look at each book, and look at the circulation statistics, and ponder. Keep, keep, toss, keep, toss, toss, toss...

The discards go in one direction to be withdrawn from the collection. Some will be sold in public book sales - revenue coming back to the library - and some will be thrown in recycling bins. The keepers go in a different direction, so they can be officially transferred from that small branch to our location, both in the catalog and on the shelf.

You can read more about weeding on the ALA Weeding Fact Sheet, and learn all about the CREW method of public-library weeding. For a lighter take, see the Awful Library Books blog, which reminds us that "hoarding is not a collection development".

* This opinion is by no means universally accepted. It is, however, more egalitarian and less patronizing. No one tells middle-class or upper-class people what they're supposed to read. The people who depend on the public library for access deserve as much freedom of choice as their wealthier neighbours. Another post, I promise.


nelson mandela, 1918-2013

"The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight.

That time has now come to South Africa.

We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom.

Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war.

Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or take over the Government.

We chose to defy the law.

We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer with violence."

-- Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom


two not-so-youth novels: another great one by john green, and part two of the hunger games

Looking for Alaska, John Green (2005)

Some months back I blogged about The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. I absolutely loved this book. I went in search of everything else the author has written, and with another title down, I have not been disappointed. Green's 2005 debut novel Looking for Alaska was about as good a youth novel as I've ever read.

It's almost impossible to write about this book without spoiling a major plot reveal. I loved the way the author managed this - it damn near took my breath away - and I don't want to deprive anyone else of that experience. So if you can manage to find this book without reading or hearing of the central premise, go for it. If the premise already has been spoiled for you, but you like a good teen read, go for it anyway.

The brilliance of Looking for Alaska lies in one Miles Halter, a narrator-descendant of Salinger's Holden Caulfield and Russell Banks' Bone, a witty, sweet, self-deprecating searcher, a misfit experiencing the joy of finding belonging, a teenager experiencing the pain and joy of love, sex, and loss. Miles is one of the most authentic and memorable teen narrators I have encountered in a long time.

On one level, Looking for Alaska is a teenage comedy, chock full of pranks and capers. At the same time, it deals with all the biggest existential questions - what is our purpose in life? what happens when we die? - as well as the very important, very ordinary questions of friendship, love, and self-acceptance.

A while back, I wrote about Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. By happy coincidence, one could say that Looking for Alaska is Man's Search of Meaning in adolescent novel form. Somehow John Green manages to weave it all together in a way that feels natural and authentic, and never preachy.

It's funny, sweet, and heartbreaking. Read it.

Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins (book two of The Hunger Games) (2009)

Perhaps the second book of a trilogy is destined to be a let-down. Between the sharp knockout of the beginning and (we hope) the stunning wrap-up of the conclusion, the second book must keep the suspense and excitement going, without peaking too early. It must function as a bridge, while also standing alone as a complete novel. It's a tall order.

So while I was somewhat disappointed in Catching Fire, the second book of The Hunger Games trilogy, it's still a very solid novel. It was only a let-down by comparison with the first book, which I absolutely loved.

This book, too, is difficult to write about without spoiling. I'll give you one bit, out of context.

Our heroes Katniss and Peeta attend a party in the Capitol, a scene of conspicuous consumption so extreme it rivals anything we've heard about ancient Rome, anything the Victorians could have dreamt up, or anything you've read about a profligate celebrity yacht. And like the storied vomitorium of ancient Rome, the Capitol frolickers drink a special liquid, to make themselves vomit... so they can eat more, and do it all over again.

For Peeta and Katniss, this is the last straw. Katniss thinks of the children in their home district, crying themselves to sleep at night with empty stomachs, thinks of whole districts of people who never experience a full stomach in their entire lives... contrasted with this obscenity of waste. Out of all the injustice, all the indignities and degradations that they struggle with, it is this contrast that fuels their thoughts of revolution.

The parallels to our world are obvious, whether we think of the income inequality of one country, or of the entire planet.

Catching Fire is less overtly political than The Hunger Games, and I found the ending unsatisfying. But I'm starting Mockingjay as soon as possible.

please watch and share this beautiful video in defense of the toronto public library


former walmart executive leads covert smear campaign against activist workers: watch their hilariously awful video

From The Nation:
Last night, Worker Center Watch - a new website dedicated to attacking labor-affiliated activist groups like OUR Walmart, Restaurant Opportunities Center, and Fast Food Forward - began sponsoring advertisements on Twitter to promote smears against the protests planned for Black Friday. In one video sponsored by the group, activists demanding a living wage and better working conditions for workers are portrayed as lazy “professional protesters” who “haven’t bothered to get jobs themselves.”

“This Black Friday, just buy your gifts, not their lies,” instructs the Worker Center Watch narrator. . . .

Worker Center Watch has no information its website about its sponsors. Yet the group attacks labor activists and community labor groups for lacking transparency. “Hiding behind these non-profits, unions mask their true motivations, circumvent operational requirements and skirt reporting and disclosure obligations,” says Worker Center Watch, referring to labor-supported worker centers like OUR Walmart.

TheNation.com has discovered that Worker Center Watch was registered by the former head lobbyist for Walmart. Parquet Public Affairs, a Florida-based government relations and crisis management firm for retailers and fast food companies, registered the Worker Center Watch website.

The firm is led by Joseph Kefauver, formerly the president of public affairs for Walmart and government relations director for Darden Restaurants. Throughout the year, Parquet executives have toured the country, giving lectures to business groups on how to combat the rise of what has been called “alt-labor.” At a presentation in October for the National Retail Federation, a trade group for companies like Nordstrom and Nike, Kefauver’s presentation listed protections against wage theft, a good minimum wage and mandated paid time off as the type of legislative demands influenced by the worker center protesters.

The presentation offered questions for the group, including: “How Aggressive Can We Be?” and “How do We Challenge the Social Justice Narrative?”
Full story, including much linkage and the amazingly awful astrotuf video, here.


buzzfeed announces no negative book reviews: what that means (and doesn't mean) and why it's good

In a New York Times op-ed, I've learned that BuzzFeed has announced the hiring of its first book editor, and will start publishing book reviews. But it will not run negative book reviews. Isaac Fitzgerald (formerly of The Rumpus and McSweeney's) said:
BuzzFeed will do book reviews, Fitzgerald said, but he hasn’t figured out yet what form they’ll take. It won’t do negative reviews: “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.” Fitzgerald said people in the online books community “understand that about books, that it is something that people have worked incredibly hard on, and they respect that. The overwhelming online books community is a positive place.”

He will follow what he calls the “Bambi Rule” (though he acknowledges the quote in fact comes from Thumper): “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
This is welcome news for serious readers.

It doesn't mean, as Wired thinks (or pretends to think), that Fitzgerald "will only accept warm and cuddly" reviews. It doesn't mean books won't be reviewed critically. Critical does not equal negative. There are valid criticisms of any book, and we should know what they are.

What it does mean, or at least what I hope it's intended to mean: no more book reviews that are really just excuses. An excuse for the reviewer to savage a writer she dislikes. An excuse to climb on a political soapbox. An excuse to name-drop. An excuse to show us the very clever insults the reviewer came up with.

In other words, no more reviews that are really about the reviewer, instead of the book.

Perhaps many readers don't realize this, but out of the vast numbers of books that are published, only a very tiny percentage get reviewed. Why waste space telling us what not to read? Why not use our limited reading time and attention spans to bring worthwhile books to our attention?

The New York Times Book Review has a longstanding tradition of assigning political books to reviewers from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Perhaps they imagine this is more impartial (unlikely; they're not stupid), or perhaps they are trying to stir controversy. Either way, it's a waste of a book review spot. If I want hollow, knee-jerk arguments, I can turn on CNN.*

I don't read book reviews to learn about the reviewer's politics or their facility with language. I read book reviews to answer one question: is this a book I might like to read? (Or, if I'm thinking as a librarian, is this a book I'd like to see in my library?)

What's the book about? What is the writer's style like? Is it accessible or dense, breezy and light, or heavy going? Is the book rich in characterization, full of wild plot twists? Is it suspenseful? Does it follow in a literary tradition, and if so, how well does it pull off that tradition? If it's nonfiction, is it well researched and argued? Thought-provoking, eye-opening? What are some of the author's main arguments? Does it do what the author set out to do? And so on.

When I first started blogging, I decided I would only write about books I enjoyed. Just because I don't like a book, doesn't mean it doesn't have merit. I know something about what it takes to write a book - the time, the effort, the commitment, the risk, the inevitable disappointment, and in many cases, the personal sacrifice. Why should I denigrate another writer's craft?

I'd rather help readers find books they might like. That seems like a much better use of my time, and yours. So I was glad to see that someone agree. Well done, BuzzFeed!

*Actually, I can't, but you know what I mean.


update on kimberly rivera and how you can help

Three days ago, Iraq War resister Kimberly Rivera gave birth to a son, Matthew Kaden, in a military hospital in San Diego. As soon as her hospital stay ends (which may have already happened), Kim will be taken back to prison. Her newborn baby will stay with his father and his siblings... but his mother will be forced to finish her prison term. Her release is scheduled for mid-December.

The US Army has rejected all appeals for clemency, and is insisting Kim serve the final weeks of her sentence, even though it means separating a mother and a newborn infant.

On Sunday, December 1, people of peace and conscience around the world will be holding actions in solidarity with Kimberly and her family.

See Free Kimberly Rivera on Facebook for updates on vigils and actions.

In Toronto, a vigil will be held at 12:00 noon at the US Consulate, 360 University Avenue. Please note this is the correct time. Actions in most other locations are taking place at 3:00 p.m.

If, like me, you cannot attend a vigil, you can still help.

- Write Brigadier General Michael A. Bills and urge him to grant clemency to PFC Rivera. Kim's lawyer has filed the official clemency request, but says that letters can still be written in support.

Brigadier General Michael A. Bills
c/o Fort Carson Public Affairs Office
1626 Ellis Street
Suite 200, Building 1118
Fort Carson, CO 80913 USA
(Fax: 1-719-526-1021)

Sign a petition on Kim's behalf.

Donations to assist the Rivera family can be made here.

You can send words of encouragement to Kim at:
Kimberly Rivera
P.O. Box 452136
San Diego, CA 92145-2136

I hope with all my heart she will soon have a new address.

canadian woman refused entry to u.s. based on confidential health records

According to this news story, a Canadian woman named Ellen Richardson was refused entry into the United States because of a prior medical condition. That is, when the US border guards swiped her passport, information taken from her health records came up.

Now, the US can refuse entry to any non-citizen for any reason or no reason. The more important question is why was a Canadian's confidential medical information in the Department of Homeland Security database?? How did it get there? How many of our health records are in the DHS database? You don't need to wear a tinfoil hat to ask these questions, and imagine the troubling scenarios they raise.

When Richardson and the Toronto Star asked for an explanation, they were told:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection media spokeswoman Jenny Burke said that due to privacy laws, "the department is prohibited from discussing specific cases."
How's that for irony? Richardson contacted her Member of Parliament.
MP Mike Sullivan said what has happened to his constituent is “enormously troubling. . . . How did U.S. agents get her personal medical information?"

He said he will be getting in touch with federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart “and demanding to know how this happened. We’re very concerned if Canadians’ personal medical information is being communicated to U.S. authorities."

Richardson has also spoken to her lawyer, David McGhee, about what she believes to be a “breach of privacy" as well as an act of discrimination against people with mental health issues.

McGhee has sent a letter to Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews asking how this breach could have occurred.

“The incident in 2012 was hospitalization for depression. Police were not involved,’’ McGhee said. “I’ve asked Deb Matthews to tell me if she’s aware of any provincial or federal authority to allow U.S. authorities to have access to our medical records. Medical records are supposed to be strictly confidential."

U.S. authorities “do not have access to medical or other health records for Ontarians travelling to the U.S.," said health ministry spokeswoman Joanne Woodward Fraser, adding the ministry could not provide any additional information.
This is not the first time a story like this has surfaced. But each time it does, it is presented without context or explanation... and then we all move on. These questions are ripe for some investigative journalism, from someone who can afford to do such things. The Toronto Star, for example, might be interested.


wmtc movie and series season is open, please post your suggestions here

What with the Red Sox winning the World Series (!!!) and Allan's book being completed (available for pre-order on Amazon!!!), I forgot to announce the official opening of Movie Season.

Since changing to streaming-only, and since I'm out one or two nights a week, we really don't binge on movies anymore - no more three movies a week for months on end - but we still need a go-to list.

Movies: well-made documentaries, quirky indies, suspenseful noir, crime thrillers or capers, mind-benders, smart comedies - post them here.

Series: We are psyched for the long-awaited Sherlock S3! We're going back to The Wire; we've seen Season 1, and a bit of S2, now we'll restart S2. We're in the middle of Downton Abbey S4 but I've lost interest, as any pretence to historical drama has been tossed, and now it's just a soap opera with cooler clothes. We liked the first two or three seasons of The Big C and Weeds, but gave up both when they stopped being great. House of Cards seems like a possibility. No Game of Thrones, please. We might watch Breaking Bad one day in the future, when no one talks about it anymore.

For me: Know any really good detective series? I need more, preferably with lots and lots of episodes. Absolutely loved Prime Suspect and Wallander, thanks to wmtc readers. Still enjoying Luther. Love love love Inspector Lewis and will probably watch the entire series again. Watched MI5 for about five minutes; cannot stand anti-terrorism shows. The Inspector Lynley Mysteries seems to have potential, but I have no source for the whole series yet.

My Star Trek adventure has come to a close. Watching the entire original series in order was so much fun! And I hugely enjoyed TNG, was sad when I came to the end. But after six or seven episodes of Voyager, I still didn't like it, and I couldn't make it through the pilot of Deep Space Nine. Oh well, it was really fun while it lasted! I could use another series like that, something engrossing but that I don't take too seriously. My favourite is still Xena TWP. Many people have recommended Firefly... or is Serenity? What's the deal?

And finally, my comedy-before-sleep routine has really benefited from streaming. I finished both The Office (US) and Malcolm in the Middle, which just might be the best kids' sitcom ever. (I plan to write more about that soon.) I'm still watching Futurama, but when I reach the end of that... Community? I've seen a few eps and it has potential. I'd prefer to switch off between two shows. Got any?


what i'm watching: thoughts on "the central park five": new york city, the central park jogger, and me

We've just seen "The Central Park Five," the Ken Burns film about five young men of colour who were wrongfully arrested, indicted, and convicted of rape and attempted murder, and who served seven, and in one case, thirteen years, in prison for a crime they didn't commit.

There was virtually no evidence linking the five teenagers to the crime, and enormous amounts of evidence showing they could not possibly have committed it. They were convicted on the strength of illegally obtained, coerced, false confessions.

In one sense, this story is one of the oldest in the United States. As former Mayor David Dinkins says in the film, it's Emmett Till. In another sense, that this happened in the late-20th-Century New York City still has the power to shock.

Indelible memories

I feel connected to the events depicted in this film through the timeline of my own life. Even before watching it, I could recall every detail. The "other rape" that occurred the same night, of the black girl who was thrown off the roof in Brooklyn. The real Central Park rapist raping someone else, stabbing her in the eye, as five innocent young teenagers were interrogated and bullied and coerced - without an adult present, without being read their rights - into confessions.

I remembered Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, how I used to admire them. In the movie, one of the young men describes how he thought of his father as a superhero. That's how I thought of Linda Fairstein, a woman who prosecuted rapists and murderers, and wrote crime novels to boot. I won't say that Fairstein never did good for the world, but for me, her complicity in this nightmare taints everything she has ever done or ever will do. She helped rob these boys of their lives, and allowed a serial rapist to continue to prey.

I remembered, years later, when I met Trisha Meili, her halting speech, her occasional blank stares into space. I remembered Meili describing how she learned how to talk again, how to add simple numbers, how she struggled to remember her old life. In the early 2000s, she described her brain damage as permanent.

I remembered reading details of the assault that were only made public after the original convictions were overturned: how Meili was tied up with a rope with complicated knots, how the drag marks at the crime scene were only 18 inches wide. Clearly not the marks of five or more teenagers on a crime spree.

Points of intersection

In 1989, when "the Central Park Jogger" was raped, I had just begun to come out of the closet as a rape survivor. I was volunteering with an anti-rape group in Brooklyn called BWARE, my first foray into the anti-violence world. When CNN and other media came around, looking for survivors and activists to talk to, organizers sent them to me. (My segment was bumped because of the Tiananmen Square massacre! We didn't have cable TV and I never got to see it.)

The anti-violence-against-women community was rocked by the case, not so much by the rape itself as by the reaction and the aftermath. Brooklyn alone was logging three or four reported sexual assaults per day - and it's thought that anywhere from one in five to one in ten rapes are reported - but the media treated this as a rare anomaly. We were horrified at the racism permeating all discussion of the attack. We were heartbroken for the survivor, but we were heartbroken for every survivor, not only the young white professional who was supposedly assaulted by dark-skinned "monsters," as the young suspects were frequently called.

More than a decade would pass before I met Trisha Meile, after her book came out, and she attended some meetings at SAVI, the anti-violence group I worked with, and then later spoke at a SAVI fundraising gala. Many of us were surprised to realize that Meile didn't identify as a rape survivor; because of the traumatic brain injury she sustained in the assault, she has no memory of it. She identifies much more strongly as a survivor of traumatic brain injury. She very generously donated time to SAVI and spoke at the gala, and she acknowledged the great support she received from SAVI and from other rape survivors. But our experiences were worlds apart. While the rest of us had to learn to live with our memories, Meili had to learn to live without them.

A film that doesn't need to exaggerate, but does

"The Central Park Five" is an excellent movie in many ways. It demonstrates quite clearly how people come to make false confessions, and it makes fully clear the gross injustice done to the five men and their families by New York City police and prosecutors.

"The Central Park Five" is also a flawed movie, in ways that may seem minor but which bothered me. The film's opening depicts New York City in the 1980s as a crime-ridden wasteland, where residents scurried from home to work and back again, breathing desperate sighs of relief when they made it safely. I lived in Brooklyn and commuted to Manhattan during this time, and I can tell you, that is just bullshit.

Much of the footage the filmmakers used in this sequence seems to have been from the 1970s, when the state of decay was much more obvious. The film goes so far as to show scary-looking subway cars covered in graffiti, something very rarely seen in the 1980s. There was crime, of course, most of it in low-income neighbourhoods. A few people interviewed in the film do make that point. That has always been, and still is, true.

Ken Burns needn't have resorted to hyperbole. The assault on Trisha Meili and the injustice done to Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam were horrific enough.

Belief and disbelief

When the story of the vacated convictions broke, a co-worker of mine - a rabid rightwinger - absolutely refused to believe that the teenagers were not guilty. No matter what the evidence, he remained convinced that the boys were set free "for political reasons". I saw evidence of this man's racism on a daily basis. The (false) story of this crime and punishment meshed perfectly with his worldview, and no amount of evidence would change that.

At the end of the film, historian Craig Steven Wilder contrasts the media frenzy at the arrests, prosecution, and convictions with the relative silence - no more than a murmur - when the truth was revealed. It just wasn't a juicy story.

Another take: The Central Park Jogger Case Had Six Victims, and Only One Was the Jogger, by Jason Bailey in The Atlantic.


what i'm watching: ken burns' "prohibition", an excellent documentary

This week we finished Ken Burns' excellent documentary "Prohibition," and I recommend it highly to everyone who enjoys history. Most of us know at least something about Prohibition, especially how it failed, but I'd bet that much of this film will be eye-opening.

And, if you aren't a regular viewer of Ken Burns' documentaries, this three-parter could serve as a wonderful introduction to his signature style. It's on US Netflix, on PBS, and probably at your local library.

I did know that the early movement against alcohol was deeply rooted in the early US women's movement. Women's anti-alcohol groups, especially the Women's Christian Temperance Union - which still exists! - were the first women to speak out publicly about domestic violence. In the pre-Prohibition United States, the saloon was a male-only domain. Men drank away their family income, then came home and abused their wives and children. Organizing against alcohol was a way of asserting women's and children's rights to live free of abuse. Some amazing feminists drove the women's movement forward through the fight against alcohol.

However, one thing I didn't know was that incredible feminist organizing was also instrumental in getting Prohibition repealed. The "Prohibition" film introduced me to Pauline Sabin, a wealthy New York socialite who used her formidable organizing, fundraising, and speaking skills to leading the movement for repeal. (The repeal movement was also fueled by the Great Depression, as the return of legal brewing, distilling, and winemaking would return millions of Americans to employment.) Another terrific woman you'll meet is Lois Long, who wrote what surely must be the godmother of "Sex and the City", for The New Yorker, under the pen-name "Lipstick".

Here's something else I didn't know: the temperance movement was also deeply rooted in religious and anti-immigrant bigotry. White, Protestant, rural Americans who had been in the country for a few generations sought to curb the behaviour of Irish, Italian, and German immigrants who lived in the teeming cities and gathered in saloons and beer halls. After all, those immigrants were dirty, vulgar, Catholics! The extent that Prohibition equalled anti-Catholic organizing may surprise you.

And, like you, I knew something about the unintended consequences of Prohibition - the speakeasies, the bootleggers, the violence. But I had no idea how widespread it was - how much money was involved, how completely corrupt the whole system was, how many deaths it caused. There was considerably more alcohol being sold and consumed during Prohibition than before or after it. And the attendant crime - politely referred to as organized crime or racketeering, but more properly called gang violence - was beyond anything I had imagined.

Canada figures in this story, of course, from the supply side, but alas, the country gets only a brief cameo. The film doesn't mention the Bronfman family, founders of Seagram, who amassed their first fortune as bootleggers, or Hiram Walker's distillery, conveniently located in Windsor, a very short, bribed boat ride from Detroit, or the many Canadian border towns that thrived off the Prohibition trade.

The parallels to the criminalization of marijuana are obvious, but I saw another contemporary parallel. The Prohibition movement could have been much more successful had it been more flexible. During the movement for Repeal, "wets" gave "drys" many opportunities to amend the Volstead Act to make it less extreme, while still leaving strong restrictions in place. The "drys" refused to compromise. For them, it was full Prohibition or nothing. And because of that, they commanded little popular support. This reminded me of the current anti-abortion-rights movement, hell-bent on alienating potential allies with their extremism.