7.29.2013

healthy slow-cooker recipe of the week: help me make delicious lentil soup

The healthy slow-cooker recipe of the week - now running about every-other week - has hit a snag: lentil soup. I love lentil soup, but my own is turning out just OK, not really delicious.

After the first try was too bland, Stephanie suggested using allspice and more bay leaves. Excellent idea! I upped the bay leaves from three to six, and added allspice. Result: big improvement, but still not great.

If you make delicious lentil soup, can you share your secrets? (And if the secret is homemade stock, then I'm out of luck.) More below.

* * * *

I'm still using the hell out of my slow-cooker. I usually cook with it twice a week - once for food for the weekend, and once for my meals at work, one batch for the week. I'm still collecting meal ideas, if you have any favourites to share.

I notice that recipes I find online tend to be exceedingly bland. With the exception of foods that are supposed to be hot-spicy (which I avoid), the recipes I see are shy of seasoning. Lentil soup, for example, may call for 1/2 a teaspoon of thyme, 1/2 a teaspoon of oregano, and 1 clove of garlic. A pot of soup with only those seasonings would be tasteless. Maybe this is a case for cookbooks, as opposed to cooking websites.

I also note that this is the kind of post that usually goes on Facebook these days, as opposed to blogs. As you may know, I think that is bad.

* * * *

So here's the lentil soup I made yesterday. What's yours?

1 cup dried lentils
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1/2 lb - 1 lb smoked ham, diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
6 bay leaves
2 teaspoons thyme
2 teaspoons oregano
1 tablespoon allspice
freshly ground pepper to taste
1 litre or more low-sodium chicken stock

Everything goes in slow-cooker, 8 hours on low.



7.28.2013

please answer one question about housing costs

Will you take a moment to answer one question? I may use it for something I write.

Click here to take the survey.

Please use net (take-home) income, and housing costs only, not utilities. (These questions were asked on Facebook.)

Thanks in advance.

nyc action alert: join striking fast-food workers on monday, july 29

If you live in New York City, you have an opportunity to stand beside working people in their struggle for a better life and healthier communities.
84% of New York fast food workers reported experiencing wage theft at some point in the past year and the New York Attorney General and New York City Council have taken note of the rampant wage theft in the industry.

McDonald’s workers, forced to work in a hot kitchen without air conditioning in the middle of a heat wave, walked off the job until their safety was ensured.

And on top of all of this, living on $7.25 in New York City isn’t getting any easier. The Economic Policy Institute recently release a family budget calculator that demonstrated a single parent with one child needs to make $67,153 a year to make it in New York City--far more than the $10,000 to $18,000 average annual salary of fast food workers.

On July 24th, fast food workers from across New York City bravely announced that they are going on strike for the third time and asked the community to have their backs.

Since publicly launching their campaign, workers report winning a series of workplace victories, including raises, more hours, and most recently, a repaired air conditioner on the hottest day of the year. But despite these victories, workers are still facing unlawful practices in response to their organizing, including terminations, reduction of hours, threats of retaliation and many other unlawful actions intended to discourage employees from organizing but workers aren't giving up the fight.
Fast-food chains are owned by some of the most lucrative corporations on the planet. The people who toil in their kitchens deserve a living wage. Join the Fight For 15. If you live in New York City, come out to support your neighbours in their struggle. Times and locations here.

what i'm reading: the fault in our stars, a truly great novel for youth and not-youth

I am in the middle of reading The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, a book almost too painful to read but impossible to put down. It's achingly funny, profoundly insightful, and utterly heartbreaking, all at the same time. The Fault In Our Stars is supposedly a youth novel, but please don't let that stop you from reading it. It is simply a wonderful book.

Hazel has cancer, and her life expectancy is short. Augustus is a cancer survivor, and has the prosthetic leg to prove it. Hazel and Augustus, two smart, funny, and otherwise ordinary teenagers, fall in love.

How do you cope with cancer as a teenager? How do you cope with love when you have cancer? How do we humans love when we know that our loved one will one day die? Why are we so helpless when our loved ones are in pain? Hazel and Augustus live through all the universal questions of love and loss, and all the universal questions of adolesence, all at once, and with a pronounced urgency. If that sounds sad, it is. But it's also witty and irreverent and funny, and wonderfully sweet, although never sentimental.

Indeed, The Fault In Our Stars is anti-sentimental: it is something of a fiction version of Bright-Sided, skewering society's standard responses to cancer, especially to sick children. Green digs deeper to expose the guilt, the fears, the isolation, and the other-ness faced daily by young people with illness and disability. I found these moments searing in their accuracy.

At the same time, Green reveals the love and joy that might be otherwise obscured by our sadness and sympathy.

The story is narrated by 16-year-old Hazel, and the voice feels unerringly authentic. Hazel Lancaster joins Roddy Doyle's Paula Spencer as Exhibit A in the Good Writing Knows No Gender proof.

When I put this book on hold at my library, there were more than 200 people waiting to read one of the 30 copies in the system. IMDB tells me that the movie adaptation will be released next year. I hope John Green makes a big pile of money and continues to write such masterpieces.

7.27.2013

"sharecroppers on wheels": port truckers are organizing, and they are winning

When is an employee not an employee? The answer to this riddle is rapidly becoming the true face of employment in the North America today.

In her brilliant investigative book Bait and Switch, Barbara Ehrenreich writes about "jobs" that require scare quotes. These "jobs" provide no salary, no benefits, and no workplace. In most cases, the "employee" finances the most basic tools of the trade out of their own pockets. Real estate agents, insurance salespeople, and cosmetic salespeople often fall under this category. You might be surprised to learn that many truckers do, too.
From Change To Win

They are called "port truckers," and they haul freight from ports to stores like Wal-Mart and Starbucks. Since the deregulation of the trucking industry - under President Carter, a Democrat - port truckers have been classified as independent contractors. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters says that the majority of port truckers (more than 80%) are wrongfully denied employee status.

Employee status would lift port truckers out of poverty, and - perhaps most importantly - give them the right to unionize. Is it any wonder the companies that profit from the truckers' labour use the fiction of the independent contractor?

Josh Eidelson has been writing about this on AlterNet, The Nation, and In These Times.
As I’ve reported, port truckers charge that their status comes with all the downsides of employment — the companies they work for set their compensation and regulate their work — and little of the upside. Most port truckers pay for their trucks (sometimes leasing them from their bosses) and the fees and upkeep costs that come with them, get paid nothing for the extra time they spend idling in traffic and have no legal right to unionize. Such a “Who’s the boss?” problem has become increasingly prevalent for US workers, as increasing numbers are cast among the ranks of temps, informal workers or independent contractors lacking the legal rights of employees — including collective bargaining.

Citing a series of public and private sector studies, a spokesperson for the federal Department of Labor told The Nation in an e-mail that the “numbers suggest that misclassification occurs in significant numbers and, across the country, workers are finding themselves without the basic protections that Congress has enacted to ensure they receive fair pay, safe workplaces, and necessary supports when they are hurt or lose their jobs.
The old sleight of hand called independent contracting keeps each individual trucker powerless against the mega-corporation that pays him. Teamster Vice President Fred Potter calls them "sharecroppers on wheels".

From Change To Win

The Teamsters and organizations like Change To Win intend to change that. Change To Win's campaigns include Wal-Mart workers, warehouse workers, port truckers, and farm labourers - an increasingly huge portion of the North American labour force, most of whom also wear that unconscionable label: the working poor.

Port truckers are determined to change their working conditions, and to reach out to their sisters and brothers in the same situation, and help them change their lives, too. Eidelson reports:
"The same day that the Teamsters won their New Jersey election, workers at the Port of Los Angeles filed the latest in a slew of wage and hour claims against port trucking companies operating in California. The claims allege that companies have illegally misclassified workers as independent contractors, denied them the wages they would legally have been entitled to as employees, and subjected them to payroll deductions that could not legally be required of employees. Following know-your-rights meetings organized by the Teamsters and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, over 400 such claims have been filed in California — some by the Teamsters, other by private attorneys. Combined with eight potential class action lawsuits, the union says the industry faces a potential liability of $100 million.

These organizing, legal and political efforts are designed to reinforce one another. Potter said that legal action “puts pressure on them to change their business model, and not misclassify workers. That will open the door for the workers, properly classified [as employees], to then seek union representation.” He predicted that evidence of rampant lawlessness would also hurt trucking companies’ relationships with the major chains that hire them. Votes to unionize by port truckers could also strengthen the case that members of the allegedly misclassified majority should have the chance to do the same.

The most dramatic attempt at such synergy took place in 2011, when port truckers staged a strike in Washington state, driving off the job in protest of alleged retaliation and massing at the state capitol to demand passage of an anti-misclassification bill. While the drivers successfully slowed the pace of Seattle’s port, the bill died in the State Senate after passing the House. Asked about that defeat, Potter said, “The industry showed up in force.” However, he said, “That bill is not dead to us.”

As new union members in an overwhelmingly non-union industry, Toll workers in California and New Jersey now have the opportunity to help organize peers at other companies. The campaign acknowledges that the higher standard it’s achieved in the Los Angeles Toll contract —w hich it says doubles workers’ hourly pay — won’t be sustainable unless some of Toll’s competitors follow suit. Indeed, that contract has language committing the Teamsters to organize currently non-union workers at other companies as well.

Schmitt told The Nation that as he and other Toll employees run into drivers from other companies at the Port of Newark, “they’re asking us questions. People are congratulating us on the victory. I guess once we get a collective bargain agreement, and the word is out, don’t be surprised that they would probably want to form a union too.”

a teenager's courage reveals the brutality of anti-choicers: "please stop calling me a whore"

This articulate and courageous 14-year-old girl says she wants to be a science teacher when she grows up. I hope she will also be a writer, because this is one of the best personal essays I have read.
I'm a 14-year-old girl who has lived in Austin, Texas, my whole life. I like art, music and talking on the phone with my friends. When I grow up, I'd like to become a science teacher.

I also believe in the right to choose and the separation of church and state. Or to put it another way -- to put it the way I wrote it when I was protesting at the Capitol last week:

"Jesus isn't a dick so keep him out of my vagina."

Yes, that's my sign.

I came up with it last week when my friend and I were trying to think of ideas for what would get people's attention to protest the scary restrictions that are happening in my state trying to take away a woman's right to safe and accessible abortions.

It worked.

When my friend and I took turns holding the sign, one of the pictures of her went viral.

Then my dad went online to defend the sign on Twitter and other online forums.

That's when people started calling me a "whore."

I'm going to be honest about what it feels like to be called that as a 14-year-old girl who has never had sex and who doesn't plan to have sex anytime soon.

I feel disappointed.

It's hard for me to understand why adults would be calling me this. It's hard for me to understand why anyone would use this term for a 14-year-old girl.

It's not anyone's business, but as I said, I am a virgin, and I don't plan to have sex until I am an adult.

But none of those facts make me feel any less passionate about fighting for a woman's right to choose and the separation of church and state in my home state of Texas.

I also don't think this makes me -- or any other 14-year-old girl who agrees with me -- a whore.

It simply makes us people. People who believe that abortion should be safe, legal and accessible for women. People who believe women should be in control of their bodies and should not ever have to put their lives at risk so that we don't go backwards in women's rights in this country.
Click here to read the essay.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Tuesday Cain! You are the future of choice, and the future of feminism - the future of change.

7.26.2013

hey mcdonald's: the working poor don't need financial advice or higher banking costs. they need higher wages. (updated)

Part 1: McDonald's version of company scrip (Part 2 below)

Any minute now we'll see the return of company scrip.

In the bad old days before labour unions forced reforms, companies - especially in industries where workers were isolated, like mines, lumber, and farming - would pay their workers in scrip. Scrip was a credit that was only accepted at the company's store - a store that charged wildly inflated prices. What a great deal for the owners, eh? They paid meagre wages, then recovered every penny, while ensuring they retained a steady supply of labourers who were (literally) hungry to work at any wage.

Now, in a digital-age capitalist remix, McDonald's, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and other high-profit, low-wage corporations are forcing or coercing employees to receive wages paid on Big Bank debit cards. And - what a surprise - the debit cards are riddled with fees - fees for purchases, fees for cash withdrawals, even fees for card inactivity.

It's not quite company scrip, as these fees don't go back into McDonald's pockets, but once again, the workers who can least afford it are being squeezed for maximum corporate profits. [Please see update, below.]

Sometimes these schemes are a new version of scrip that is a bit less obvious. Sometimes it's the same old thing: in Mexico, Wal-Mart was paying employees in vouchers redeemable only at Wal-Mart. The country's Supreme Court forced them to stop. Either way, the poor grow poorer and the rich profit off workers' hardships.

The New York Times reports:
A growing number of American workers are confronting a frustrating predicament on payday: to get their wages, they must first pay a fee.

For these largely hourly workers, paper paychecks and even direct deposit have been replaced by prepaid cards issued by their employers. Employees can use these cards, which work like debit cards, at an A.T.M. to withdraw their pay.

But in the overwhelming majority of cases, using the card involves a fee. And those fees can quickly add up: one provider, for example, charges $1.75 to make a withdrawal from most A.T.M.’s, $2.95 for a paper statement and $6 to replace a card. Some users even have to pay $7 inactivity fees for not using their cards.

These fees can take such a big bite out of paychecks that some employees end up making less than the minimum wage once the charges are taken into account, according to interviews with consumer lawyers, employees, and state and federal regulators.

Devonte Yates, 21, who earns $7.25 an hour working a drive-through station at a McDonald’s in Milwaukee, says he spends $40 to $50 a month on fees associated with his JPMorgan Chase payroll card.

“It’s pretty bad,” he said. “There’s a fee for literally everything you do.”

Certain transactions with the Chase pay card are free, according to a fee schedule.

Many employees say they have no choice but to use the cards: some companies no longer offer common payroll options like ordinary checks or direct deposit.

At companies where there is a choice, it is often more in theory than in practice, according to interviews with employees, state regulators and consumer advocates. Employees say they are often automatically enrolled in the payroll card programs and confronted with a pile of paperwork if they want to opt out.

“We hear virtually every week from employees who never knew there were other options, and employers certainly don’t disabuse workers of that idea,” said Deyanira Del Rio, an associate director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, which works with community groups in New York.

Taco Bell, Walgreen and Wal-Mart are among the dozens of well-known companies that offer prepaid cards to their workers; the cards are particularly popular with retailers and restaurants. And they are quickly gaining momentum. In 2012, $34 billion was loaded onto 4.6 million active payroll cards, according to the research firm Aite Group. Aite said it expected that to reach $68.9 billion and 10.8 million cards by 2017.

. . . .

Sometimes, though, the incentives for employers to steer workers toward the cards are more explicit. In the case of the New York City Housing Authority, it stands to receive a dollar for every employee it signs up to Citibank’s payroll cards, according to a contract reviewed by The New York Times. (Sheila Stainback, a spokeswoman for the agency, noted that it had an annual budget of $3 billion and that roughly 430 employees had signed up for the card.)

For Natalie Gunshannon, 27, another McDonald’s worker, the owners of the franchise that she worked for in Dallas, Pa., she says, refused to deposit her pay directly into her checking account at a local credit union, which lets its customers use its A.T.M.’s free. Instead, Ms. Gunshannon said, she was forced to use a payroll card issued by JPMorgan Chase. She has since quit her job at the drive-through window and is suing the franchise owners.

“I know I deserve to get fairly paid for my work,” she said.

. . . .

For banks that are looking to recoup billions of dollars in lost income from a spate of recent limits on debit and credit card fees, issuing payroll cards can be lucrative — the products were largely untouched by recent financial regulations. As a result, some of the nation’s largest banks are expanding into the business, banking analysts say.

The lack of regulation in the payroll card market, while alluring for some of the issuers, can potentially leave cardholders swimming in fees. Take the example of inactivity fees that penalize customers for infrequently using their cards. The Federal Reserve has banned such fees for credit and debit cards, but no protections exist on prepaid cards. Cards used by more than two dozen major retailers have inactivity fees of $7 or more, according to a review of agreements.

Some employees can also be hit with $25 overdraft fees, called “balance protection,” on some of the prepaid cards. Under the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law, banks with more than $10 billion in assets are barred from levying overdraft fees on customers’ checking accounts.

Many fees are virtually impossible to dodge, some employees say. A Victoria’s Secret employee, Bintou Kamara, for example, said it cost her $1.50 just to transfer money from her Citi payroll card to her checking account.

“I just make such little money that it seems like a lot to pay just to get access to it,” said Ms. Kamara, 23, who works as a sales clerk in New York.

Naoki Fujita, a policy associate at Retail Action Project, an advocacy group for retail workers, said, “These are people who can least afford to fork over huge fees.”
When labour action groups like Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago circulated this story, 286,000 people signed a petition demanding McDonald's stop this practice. The McDonald's Pennsylvania outlet that was sued by a former employee over debit-card pay did reverse the policy: using the cards is no longer compulsory.

But McDonald's has not stopped the practice nationwide, nor have any other companies. Attorneys general in some states are investigating. We can be sure of one thing: nothing will change unless and until workers continue to make noise, both in the courts and in the streets.

Part 2: McDonald's solution to low wages: don't eat, don't use heat, and hold two full-time jobs

But let it not be said that McDonald's doesn't try to improve the lives of its workers. The world's largest fast-food chain recently formed a partnership with one of the world's largest financial corporations to help McDonald's employees survive on McDonald's wages.


Here I'll turn it over to Occupy Democrats, because I can't possibly improve on what they've written.
...this gesture of goodwill completely backfired when whoever wrote it proved literally incapable of putting his/herself in the shoes of a minimum wage fast-food employee. Instead, all it did is tellingly show how there is almost no way to scrape a living on a minimum wage salary.”

Not only does the budget clearly indicate a second job is a NECESSITY because it’s impossible to make ends meet with just the one job, it also gives wholly unreasonable estimates for employees’ costs: $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating, and the generally low $600 in rent. It also does not include any budgeted money for food or clothing or gas. No heat, no water, no natural gas bills, no food, just electric AND you must have a second job.

This isn’t even a proper low-income budget.

Let us assume a McDonald’s worker earns the Federal minimum wage of 7.25$/hour. If we calculate that amount into what McDonald’s says a worker earns in a month, that will be nearly 40 hours per week.

It’s absurd to think someone working full time has time for an extra full time job.

At the federal minimum wage of only $7.25 an hour, with just one job, a typical fast-food worker earns about $9,000 a year. Using the same wage criteria for the second job it comes in at almost 35 hours per week by itself, for a grand aggregate total of 75 hours of work per week holding down two jobs, or 10 hours per day.

Now, talk to an average McDonald’s worker (or other fast food for that matter) and see how likely they are to have anywhere close to full-time hours at one employer, much less all their jobs.

Even that overstates the annual earnings of most fast-food workers, whose managers typically limit them to less than the “full time” hours that qualify them for health care, vacation, and other benefits.

The minimum wage in America is an abomination. It is not a living wage by any means and it’s impossible to get by with such a low salary. If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation, it would now be over $10 an hour. If it had kept up with skyrocketing productivity as it lined employers pockets’ the minimum wage would be $21.72.
Paul Campos, writing in Salon, uncovers the grievously insulting assumption underlying this budget: poor people are poor because they don't know how to manage their money.
Critics have pointed out that the budget omitted such luxury items as food and heat, that it made absurdly low estimates for medical insurance — and that, most strikingly of all, it appeared to suggest that its workers should maintain two full-time jobs. (And indeed working two nearly-full time jobs would be necessary to produce the income in the sample budget, given the wages McDonald’s pays most of its employees).

These are all valid points, but an even more basic criticism of McDonald’s helpful advice to its workforce needs to be made.

The unstated assumption behind the McDonald’s budget is that the working poor must be educated about financial planning. And that assumption is in turn a belief that is deeply embedded among America’s cultural elites – including among many people who consider themselves political progressives.

That belief is: The working poor are poor because they are at bottom spendthrifts, who don’t know the value of a dollar. The working poor may have jobs, they may even work hard for their money, but they don’t know how to save for a rainy day. Instead, they squander their wages on overpriced impulse purchases, including fancy cellphones, cable TV, proletarian beer and unhealthy food that makes them fat.

. . . In fact nothing could be more preposterous than rich people giving poor people advice on how to stretch a dollar. The absurdity of this is captured perfectly by John Scalzi’s aphorism that “being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.”

I have seen secondhand (like most members of the pundit class, I am not personally poor) a woman feed herself and her three children on a $30 per week grocery budget, for months on end. I’ve been amazed by her combination of discipline, creativity and self-sacrifice. (A commenter to Scalzi’s post writes: “Growing up poor means realizing twenty years later that Mommy was lying when she said, ‘it’s OK sweetie, I’ve already eaten.’”)

. . . The great legal historian A.W.B. Simpson once said to me that “the problem of the poor is not that they’re oppressed, but rather that they have no money.” Precisely. The working poor generally work far harder than their well-intentioned upper-class advisers, but they have no money.

In other words, the poor don’t need financial advice; they need higher wages. Yet apparently The Market – our all-seeing, beneficent Market, which declares that it is right and just that some men should have billions, while others sleep under bridges – has decided that higher wages for the working poor are an offense against all that we hold sacred.
Both posts are excellent and deserve your click-through: McDonald’s Very Own Suggested Employee ‘Budget’ Proves Need to Raise Wages, and Get a clue, McDonald’s: The other insult no one’s talking about.

Part 3: Some (formerly) local news

This past weekend, McDonald's workers in our old New York City neighbourhood of Washington Heights walked off the job after being forced to work without air conditioning on the hottest day of the summer. One worker collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. Her co-workers said: enough is enough.

Broken air-conditioning at a Dunkin' Donuts in Chicago caused similarly inhumane conditions, and a similarly strong response. People earning a miserly $7.25/hour cannot be expected to work in a kitchen without air conditioning as triple-digit (F) temperatures sizzle outside.

* * * *

You can support these workers struggles through movements like Fight for 15. You can also support them by boycotting McDonald's.

McDonald's food ruins your health, impoverishes your community, tortures animals in feedlots, exploits migrant workers, and destroys the environment. If for some reason you still want to eat fast food, at least take McDonald's off your list.

* * * *

Update. I wrote "It's not quite company scrip, as these fees don't go back into McDonald's pockets, but once again, the workers who can least afford it are being squeezed for maximum corporate profits." anticipating some nitpicky comments. But in my haste to post, I didn't take my analysis far enough, or I never would have written that qualifying sentence. Fortunately for us, wmtc readers were right on it.

M@ speculated that McDonald's undoubtedly has a sweetheart deal with Visa, and "the banks will make such huge profits on all these accounts that they'll be throwing money or perks at McDonald's left, right, and centre". We're hardly going out on a limb if we agree with that one.

Impudent Strumpet reminded us that McDonald's employees are making involuntary, interest-free loans with the whatever portion of their paycheque has not been debited. Here's how it works.

The discussion continues in comments; please visit.

I have to say this is one of the worst abuses of latter-day capitalism that I have ever heard of.

7.21.2013

a people's history of british columbia, and a chance to preserve it for the future

Here's a chance to preserve Canadian history - the real history, not the government-approved kind - and to preserve art and creativity and alternative media, all at the same time.


Please consider giving $7.00 - or any amount - and sharing this excellent campaign with your friends and on social media. More info:
Hi! My name is Nicole Marie Guiniling and I’m the founder of Ad Astra Comix.

Ad Astra is a website that promotes political and historical comic books, and has recently stepped, albeit with shakey legs, into production, distribution, and publishing.

Over the next 40 days, I'm here on IndieGoGo to promote the re-mastering of "100 Year Rip-Off: The Real History of British Columbia." It’s a graphic history of the province that was first published in 1971. That makes it the oldest "Graphic History" on record in Canada.

100 Year Rip-Off

In July 1971, 100 Year Rip-Off was printed as an 8-page tabloid-sized insert in the counter-culture newspaper, Socialist Youth. It was produced in response to festivities celebrating 100 years of British Columbia's time as a Canadian province. When I first looked through it 40 years later, I was holding a photocopy of a photocopy--after four decades out of print, it was unlikely that too many originals were still around.

Pages were creased, graphics were scarred, and the text was messy, but I loved it. What a wonderful documentation--and piece, in and of itself--of B.C. history! I just knew that if the work were re-issued, there would be others like me who would want to see it.

In cooperation with the original artist, Bob Altwein, Ad Astra Comix is re-releasing 100 Year Rip-Off for a new generation of readers. The original work has been re-mastered and re-formatted into a black-and-white, 30-page comic book--the same size as your garden-variety Marvel or DC comic.

Ad Astra Comix is already at the presses, ready to begin printing.... but in order to get 100 Year Rip-Off into comic shops across Canada, we need costs to be as low as possible.

interspecies love, pup and guinea pig edition

Sadly, this will not embed. So please click. You won't be sorry. Go click now!

Thanks to Stephanie!

7.20.2013

helen thomas, 1920-2013






A journalist, a pioneer, a feminist. An asker of questions. New York Times obituary here.

brandon toy: i have come to believe that the true insanity is doing nothing

Brandon Toy, writing in Common Dreams.
I hereby resign in protest effective immediately.

I have served the post-911 Military Industrial complex for 10 years, first as a soldier in Baghdad, and now as a defense contractor.

At the time of my enlistment, I believed in the cause. I was ignorant, naïve, and misled. The narrative, professed by the state, and echoed by the mainstream press, has proven false and criminal. We have become what I thought we were fighting against.

Recent revelations by fearless journalists of war crimes including counterinsurgency "dirty" wars, drone terrorism, the suspension of due process, torture, mass surveillance, and widespread regulatory capture have shed light on the true nature of the current US Government. I encourage you to read more about these topics at the links I have provided below.

Some will say that I am being irresponsible, impractical, and irrational. Others will insist that I am crazy. I have come to believe that the true insanity is doing nothing. As long as we sit in comfort, turning a blind eye to the injustices of the world, nothing will change. It is even worse to play an active part, protesting all along that I am not the true criminal.

I was only a foot soldier, and am now a low level clerk. However, I have always believed that if every foot soldier threw down his rifle war would end. I hereby throw mine down.

Sincerely,

Brandon M. Toy
Stryker Engineering Project Management
General Dynamics Land Systems
Sterling Heights, Michigan
Mr. Toy's links are here.

Thank you, Brandon Toy. I salute you, I admire you, and I celebrate what you have done. You are a pioneer of a world without war.

what i'm reading: two youth novels

There is so much truly excellent youth fiction out these days, and it's not all vampires and zombies. Here are two wonderful teen novels in two totally different veins.

There Is No Dog, Meg Rossoff, 2011

Like many excellent novels, Meg Rosoff's There Is No Dog defies easy classification. It's a comedy, but it's heartbreaking. It's a fantasy involving gods and goddesses with power over life and fate, but it pokes holes in the peculiar fiction known as religion. It's about the mysteries of falling in love, and also about the mystery of being alive.

There Is No Dog imagines God as a teenage boy. Like many teenagers, God is self-centered, forgetful, narcissistic, lazy, unfocused, and impulsive. Unfortunately, he is also incredibly powerful. If God runs a bath then forgets to turn off the tap, hundreds of thousands of people perish in a flood. When God scowls and pouts because he can't convince a young mortal to have sex with him, fierce storms and unexplained phenomena rock the world. God is no longer allowed to help himself to any mortal woman he desires, but there are allusions to Leda (rape by Zeus as swan), Europa (rape by Zeus as bull), and similar victims in the mythologies of other cultures. Now teen-boy-god just seduces mortal women with his (literally) irresistible charm.

Teenage-boy-god inhabits a world full of other gods and goddesses, most of whom are monstrously selfish, self-absorbed, violent, uncaring, and impulsive. They gamble and squabble amongst themselves, while their mortal creatures in various galaxies suffer the consequences. It's screwball comedy, but with an underlying sadness.

Back on Earth, an average teenaged girl is in love, a mother is over-protective, a zoo is drowning, and a minister feels - and is - helpless. The vision of the selfish, arbitrary, and all too flawed deities, juxtaposed with the modern minister overwhelmed by his congregation's fears raises questions about faith, belief, and the existence of a higher power - questions that are never directly posed, only implied.

I was particularly impressed by a youth author raising profound existential questions with her readers. Humans represent the gods' worst error: a mortal creature who knows its own mortality. All creatures die, but only humans know that they die. And we must figure out how to live with that knowledge, and continue to live, despite it.

This is a funny, profound, and beautiful book.

What I Saw and How I Lied, Judy Blundell, 2010

In What I Saw and How I Lied, Judy Blundell folds a classic coming of age story into a historical context, then surehandedly builds suspense to turn the book into a convincing thriller.

Fifteen-year-old Evie falls in love with a worldly 23-year-old. If that isn't recipe enough for heartache, Evie begins to discover that her parents are not who they appear to be. Neither is the postwar America they all live in, a land of peace and prosperity, unless you happen to be black, Jewish, a single mother, or anybody else who doesn't conform. Evie's discoveries about her mother, stepfather, and the man she longs for are echoed in her discovery of the injustices - and hypocrisy - that remain after the "good guys" won the war.

What I Saw and How I Lied is full of suspense and mystery, but is more about dizzying first love, the confusion of realizing your parents are merely human, and the pain of growing up. A terrific, complex, authentic novel.

7.19.2013

know your rights, rental edition

After a week of looking at houses for rent, we found something we love and put down a deposit. My dread of moving has been mostly replaced with a mixture of resignation and excitement, as this will be a definite upgrade in our standard of living. Life is full of the unexpected. We're very fortunate in many ways - it could be way worse - and I don't want to lose that perspective.

This experience continues to be educational! In addition to the rental scams I saw on Craigslist, the basement disaster and our impending move have provided a refresher course (as if I needed one!) in knowing your rights and asserting them.

Know what you're entitled to

Last week, I emailed our insurance agent with a question, and was told that our claim would be disallowed - none of our losses covered - because we are not covered for flood. I was horrified. Sick to my stomach. What about our sewer backup rider? Our damage was from sewer backup, and we bought an extra rider expressly for that. The language is very clear and straightforward. It doesn't specify or exclude any cause of sewer backup, it just covers loss caused by it. Meaning, it doesn't matter if the sewer backup is caused by a flood. We still should be covered.  I managed to control my emotions and write a coherent email to the agent.

Lo and behold, she got back to me very quickly, saying she "went up the line" and argued on our behalf, and yes, we would be covered in full.

Her reply seemed awfully quick for "going up the line". Was she performing her company duty, attempting to deny coverage? Most people I spoke to thought so. After all, we know health insurance companies in the United States employ people whose sole task is to create obstacles to coverage, to make it so difficult that the patient or their family member gives up and goes away. (Whistleblowers have attested to this.) Obviously I have no proof that this agent was following that approach. It's just difficult for me to see the error as unintentional.

Know what they're not entitled to

We gave our landlord written notice that we were terminating our tenancy - that is, breaking our lease. He returned our rent cheques that would be unused,* but not our security deposit, which should be our last month's rent. LL told Allan that after we moved, he'll inspect the place and we can discuss the security deposit at that time. We knew this was his opening salvo in a move to keep our deposit.

I called to follow up, emphasizing that we need our deposit back (or used as our final month's rent, and the September cheque returned; it amounts to the same thing) in order to make a deposit on another place. He repeated the same line about an inspectionl I requested we arrange this inspection sooner rather than later, so I can get a handle on my finances. He agreed.

After we hung up, I had an idea. With a few seconds of Googling, I learned that what LL was suggesting is illegal under Ontario law. I sent this email.
Hi [LL],

As it turns out, we will have to change the way our last month's rent is being handled. We've learned that under Ontario law, our security deposit can only be used for the last month's rent. It cannot legally be withheld for damages, cleaning, or any other charges.

A summary of appropriate rent/security deposit procedures are summarized here by the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board:

http://www.ltb.gov.on.ca/en/Key_Information/STEL02_111479.html

In particular, I draw your attention to these paragraphs:

Can a landlord charge a person a deposit or a fee to rent a unit?

Yes, a landlord can collect a rent deposit if it is requested on or before the day that the landlord and tenant enter into the tenancy agreement. The rent deposit cannot be more than one month's rent or the rent for one rental period, whichever is less. For example, if rent payments are made weekly, the deposit cannot be more than one week’s rent; if rent payments are made monthly or bi-monthly, the deposit cannot be more than one month’s rent.

The rent deposit must be used for the rent for the last month before the tenancy ends. It cannot be used for anything else, such as to pay for damages.

Does a landlord have to pay interest if a rent deposit is collected?

Yes, the landlord must pay the tenant interest on the rent deposit every 12 months. The amount of interest that a landlord must pay is the same as the rent increase guideline that is in effect when the interest payment is due. The guideline is set each year by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Information about this year’s rent increase guideline can be found in the Brochures by Topic section of our website.

Note: Landlords may deduct the amount needed to update the rent deposit (so that it equals the current rent) from the interest that is owed to the tenant. See previous question.

If the landlord does not pay the interest owed to the tenant when it is due, the tenant can:
- deduct the interest from a future rent payment, or
- file a Tenant Application for a Rebate (Form T1) to the Board.

Can the landlord charge the tenant a damage deposit?

No. A landlord cannot collect a damage deposit that they would use if there is damage done to the unit. Also, a landlord cannot use the last month’s rent deposit to cover damages in the unit.

If the landlord finds that a tenant has damaged the unit or caused damage to the building, the landlord can give the tenant a notice and/or ask them to pay for the damages. If they do not, the landlord can apply to have the Board determine if there are damages and what should be done about them. For more information about the remedies available to a landlord if a tenant causes damage, see the Board’s brochure on Maintenance & Repairs. [end quote]


Accordingly, we are requesting that you return either our rent cheque dated September 1, 2013, or our security deposit in full, plus the interest required by law. If you believe there are damages to the house for which we should be reponsible, we will discuss and negotiate that as a separate matter, as required by law.

We need our security deposit returned promptly so that we can sign a lease on another house, and the law very clearly states that this is our right. Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Laura & Allan
This LL is not a kid. He is not a novice. I'm quite sure he knows the provisions of the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act.

We can apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board to recover our money. Hopefully we won't have to, but we won't hesitate to do this if need be.

I'm not special

And so, there are two more examples of how you can be ripped off if you don't know - and assert - your rights.

Long ago, after one of these types of posts, a reader thought I was bragging about getting special treatment. Quite the contrary. My point is that we all must do this, and we all can. I know it doesn't come naturally or easily to everyone, but it does get easier with practice - especially if you've ever gotten the positive reinforcement of a good result. I share my stories to show that you can fight back, and that often you must fight back. You can know your rights and you can win.

One final note. When you're doing battle with a landlord or a utility or a telecom company, you need unassailable facts. Don't ask your friends, or if you do, don't rely on their opinions, even if they appear to have inside knowledge. Don't ask the folks who hang out at your favourite message board or social media site. And for dog's sake, don't ask Ask.com or Yahoo! Answers or something similar. Go online and go to the source. And if you're unsure how to find reliable sources online... ask a librarian!



------
* In Canada, as in many European countries, tenants give landlords a year's worth of post-dated cheques. Landlords deposit the appropriate cheque at the beginning of each month, and it's the tenant's job to see that the cheque will clear.

7.14.2013

in which i discover yet another internet scam

Looking for rental houses on Craigslist, I've discovered a scam that I was previously unaware of.

I replied to an ad for a place that sounded wonderful, with unusually low rent. I was keeping in mind the old maxim "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," but at the same time, it's only an email. It can't hurt to ask.

Everything I wanted to know about the property was answered in the affirmative. Then the supposed owner told me that I should fill out a rental application and, if approved, I could see the place.

Hmm. It's been six years since we looked for a place to live, but I'm pretty sure you don't fill out an application before you even see a property, unless you're working with a real estate agent. That would be a colossal waste of time. And why would I send personal information to a person I haven't even met, for a house I might not even want?

I tried to arrange a time to see the house, saying I would bring the completed application with me, and if we liked the house, submit the application on the spot.

Supposed Owner said he would not meet me at the house. He would give me the address and send keys "by secure courier". OK. That is weird.

At the same time, I heard back from another ad I replied to, also with an extremely low rent. This Supposed Owner had to leave the country suddenly for missionary work! They would give me an address where I could see the exterior of the house, and would mail me the keys.

Next stop: Google. "Rental scams." Dozens of sites describe this very common scam, but the SCAMwatch website, run by the Government of Australia, is particularly concise.
Fake rental properties and shared accommodation listings

Prospective tenants are being ripped off by fake rental property and shared accommodation listings on the internet posted by scammers.

SCAMwatch is warning prospective tenants to be wary when responding to rental properties advertised on the net where the 'owner' makes various excuses as to why you can't inspect the property but insists on an upfront payment for rent or deposit.

Scammers will often use various shared accommodation sites to post these fake listings. They will go to great lengths to ensure that the offer looks genuine by including photos and real addresses of properties. However, photos and details of properties can be easily obtained on the internet.

Once hooked, the scammer will request money, often via money transfer, or personal details upfront to 'secure' the rental property. SCAMwatch warns consumers not to send money or provide personal details to people you don't know and trust.

Warning signs - what to watch out for:

- Too good to be true offers.

- Ongoing excuses as to why the property cannot be viewed, such as the owner is overseas.

- Securing the property requires an up front fee via money transfer.

- The prospective landlord lives overseas.

How to protect yourself

- Insist on inspecting the property - a drive-by is not enough. With these types of scams, the property may genuinely exist, but it is owned by someone else.

- If it is overseas, ask someone you can trust to make inquiries. If there is a real estate agent or similar in the area they may be able to assist.

- Do not rely on any information provided to you from anyone recommended by the person advertising the property.

- An internet search on the name of the person offering the property and their email address may provide useful information.

- Where possible, avoid paying via money transfer. It is rare to recover money sent this way.
Today in the Craigslist housing listings, I noticed two ads, both identical to ads I saw yesterday - same photo, same text - but with the rent 30% lower. The poster hadn't even bothered to change conflicting information: the text said "no smoking no pets," but the Craigslist template was set to "cats OK dogs OK". (Example: original ad, scam ad.)

Like many people, when I heard about these scams in the past, I used to blame the victim. How could anyone fall for this? Now I take a more generous view. People can't know what they haven't been taught. Need or desire can blind us, and affordable housing is rarer than an honest real estate agent.

It's not just fresh-off-the-boat rubes and hayseeds that get taken. This New York Times article describes "a woman in her 20s who works in finance at a major investment bank" who came close to falling for a scam. Several people described in that article thought they were savvy, but ended up forking over money to con men.

what i'm reading, children's books edition: # 8: the invention of hugo cabret

In the aftermath of the flood and with our impending move, when I'm not dealing with those events, all I want to do is read and blog. If you enjoy my "what i'm reading" posts, you'll be happy. If not...

* * * *

I've long wanted to read The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Now that Martin Scorsese has adapted it into the movie "Hugo," I wanted to make sure I read it before seeing the film.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a wonderfully inventive and engaging book. It combines elements of picture books, graphic novels, and even flip books within the "chapter book" format for older children. It's a big, fat book - which itself has appeal for many readers - but roughly half the pages are filled with black-and-white pencil illustrations. These are pencil drawings, also by Selznick.

Typically, a group of illustrations form a sequence of images, first seen from a distance, then zooming in closer, and still closer. Because of this technique, many people describe the book as having a movie-like quality. Here's an example:










Unlike in conventional chapter books, where illustrations echo or amplify some action already explained in the text, the illustrations in Hugo Cabret are used to move the story forward, like this:
One night, the old guard in the museum forgot that Hugo’s father was up in the attic, and he locked the door, trapping him inside. Hugo had no way of knowing what happened next.


No one knows how the fire started, but it rushed through the whole building in minutes.
I love these wonderful illustrations and the way they are used, but they're not even the best part of the book. The writing is simple, precise, and elegant. The plot is twisting and convoluted, full of suspense and surprises. For the more sophisticated reader, the book is also playfully self-referential: a magical book about magic (which also features books about magic), a movie-like book about the magic of film, a mystery about missing pieces. It is set in 1931 Paris, so it's peppered with elements of history and place.

This is a beautiful, daring, exciting, suspenseful, charming, and sometimes profound book. Highly recommended.

healthy slow-cooker recipe of the week: chicken in wine with sun-dried tomatoes

When it comes to soups and stews, there is a seemingly endless number of variables that can be changed to create new variations of any given dish. If you like chicken stew, for example, you could experiment with different combinations of vegetables, different seasonings, better (or quicker) stocks, fresh herbs - and then with various combinations of all of those. Since buying my slow-cooker some months ago, I've made lots of different chicken stews, all of them easy, tasty, and healthy. This one is my current favourite combo.

A note about these stews. To make a proper stew, most people use some sort of thickener. You can dredge the meat in flour, or add corn starch, flour, tapioca, bread crumbs, or even oatmeal to the liquid. I don't do this. For me, thick means gloppy; I don't like it. Plus, I prefer not to add gluten or additional calories to any dish.

If you prefer a thick stew, you'll want to thicken any of my recipes. Or you could try one of the three ways I serve these dishes: either as a main-dish broth soup, or by serving with a slotted spoon and/or tongs without the liquid, spooning on a bit of broth for moisture and flavour, or by serving with brown rice or pasta to absorb the liquid and flavour the starch.

Since this version has potatoes, and you probably wouldn't want both potatoes and rice, so either of the first two options would work.

4 chicken drumsticks and 4 chicken thighs, skin removed
3-4 carrots, sliced thickly
1 medium onion, cut in eight pieces (quartered then quartered again)
20 tiny red potatoes (if they are larger, cut them in half, ending up with about 20 pieces)
2 ribs celery, cut lengthwise, then sliced thickly
about 10 crimini mushrooms, halved or quartered
3-4 garlic cloves, crushed or minced
1 ounce sun-dried tomatoes, not in oil
1 cup red wine
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
thyme OR cumin
salt & pepper

Season chicken pieces with salt, pepper, and either thyme or cumin but not both. Brown well in skillet. Add to slower cooker.

Add all other ingredients directly to slow-cooker. Stir to combine.

Cook on slow for four hours. Remove chicken and keep warm. Continue cooking broth and vegetables for another 2-4 hours, depending on how soft you want the vegetables, re-adding chicken to the pot for the last half-hour.



dear liberal public: there is nothing shocking about the george zimmerman verdict

Dear liberal public,

The internet tells me you are shocked - shocked and outraged - about the verdict in the George Zimmerman case.

Seriously? You are shocked?

You have lived in the United States or Canada all your life, and you are shocked that a white man who killed a black child in the state of Florida has walked free?

I can only scratch my head in wonder. There is nothing shocking about this not-guilty verdict. Indeed, it was the most expected and the most typical outcome possible. I would have been shocked if the verdict had been any different. That's the problem.

What's that you say, you thought things had changed, because a black man lives in the White House? Because the corporate media told you that a black man being elected to the highest office in the land proves that the United States has moved beyond racism?

That is very sad.

Perhaps this verdict will move you to become more informed about the world around you, to rely less on public relations and on blind faith, to shed the belief that the United States is a democracy where all are treated equally under the law. Perhaps this verdict will move you to learn more about how millions of your fellow Americans live, every day.

If that happened, then I'd be shocked, too.

The NAACP is circulating a petition asking the Department of Justice [sic] to open a civil action against George Zimmerman. I share it here out of duty. It takes only a moment to click. So please click. But really, we don't need a new petition. We need a new system.

And now that you've clicked, you can go back to sleep.

Yours truly,

A former liberal, now a leftist

7.12.2013

the incredible shrinking life: a flood, a hotel room, a library

I'm always amazed how when personal upheaval strikes, whether tragedy or happy Big Life Change - your world shrinks down to a tiny little circle. We moved to Canada the day Hurricane Katrina struck, and days later, we were struggling to take in all we had missed. Since the flood four nights ago, the outside world has barely registered on my radar.

So, what has happened to the Laura and Allan Family since I posted those lovely sewage-filled photos?

The aftermath

The flood was Monday night. The Greater Toronto Area received a month's worth of rainfall in the span of a few hours. Water and sewage rushed in through the toilet in our basement, then rushed out again, leaving behind a disgusting mess.

We lost many items stashed in the basement, like suitcases, a vacuum, painting supplies, and whatever else. But much more importantly, Allan's office is in the basement. He salvaged many things... and lost many things. We will get an insurance settlement, but many things are irreplaceable.

Power was restored in Mississauga late Monday night or Tuesday morning. Once we had phone service, it was nearly impossible to get through to insurance companies, and if you did manage to file a claim, no one was available to follow up on it. Cleaning and restoration companies were similarly either impossible to reach or fully booked. We had no hot water.

I worked at home on Tuesday, trying to move our claim forward, while Allan carried boxes of books from the basement to the spare bedroom on the second floor. With my broken foot, I could do little but urge him on. When I went into the library for work on Tuesday night, I felt like I was dreaming. How could all these people just be going about their business, enjoying a normal day?

On Wednesday we expected a cleaning crew, a new hot water heater, and follow-up from our insurance company. None of those materialized. So another day went by with no progress, and no hot water. Well, that's not accurate. Something was making quite a lot of progress: the mould growing in the soggy basement.

On Thursday morning I was beginning to lose patience. As usual, our landlord was trying to do things on the cheap - fine for him, he had hot water - and I had to get ready for work by heating water on the stove and washing up in the kitchen sink.

When I got home from work on Thursday, the house stank of mould. The mould had obviously worked its way into the ventilation system and was polluting the entire house. I'm allergic to mould, and five minutes in the house left me coughing and gave me a pounding headache. (It wasn't a stress headache: sitting outside in fresh air cleared it right up.)

At the same time, I was getting an enormous runaround from our insurance company, being passed from one person to another to another, and back to the beginning again. Our claim had fallen into some kind of black hole.

I informed Cheapo Landlord that he should ask his insurance company about putting us in a hotel until the hot water was restored and the basement was clean. When he couldn't reach his insurance company and he managed to restore hot water himself, he thought he could talk me into staying: "Just open the windows."

I found a pet-friendly Holiday Inn in Mississauga, we packed a few things, threw the dogs in the car, and hit the road. We were a little beyond open windows at that point.

So last night we had lovely hot showers and clean air and a bottle of wine in our room at the Holiday Inn. This morning Allan dropped me at work, and when he picked me up, the flood restoration people were at work in the basement. I was able to sit on our patio but unable to stay inside for more than a few moments: instant headache. We're at the hotel again tonight, but I'm hoping tomorrow night we'll be home.
"Yay, we're in the car!"

It turns out our own renters insurance covers "additional living expenses" associated with whatever event caused the claim. That could include child care, kennelling an animal, restaurants, and of course, hotels. I'm a little disappointed that we can't give the bill to our landlord! But it's great to know our insurance will pick this up.

The upshot

We're moving.

This is our second flood. After the first one, we endured a long, drawn-out renovation, but that wasn't motivation enough to leave. But this time is so much worse. How could we ever be comfortable here again? Every time it rains, we'll be nervous. The whole point of renting is not to be tied down to property. So I'm looking at rentals online, and we've already seen two places.

It's sad, because we love our little house and our huge backyard, and we are very unlikely to see the likes of them again. Yards are way smaller and houses way bigger, generally. But I remind myself that when we had to leave our little house in Port Credit (because the landlord wanted it back), I was so upset... and it turned out to be a wonderful move, with many benefits. Perhaps the next place will have much to recommend it.

It's also a very bad time for a move, with Allan facing a September 1 deadline for his manuscript. Right before we moved to Canada, I was offered an exciting and lucrative writing project. (Some of you may remember "Ancient Civs".) I remember Allan saying, "You have to take this. How can you not? I'll do all the packing." And he did. He got quotes from movers, organized the move, and packed every single thing we owned, while I wrote full-time and worked my day job on weekends. Now I will do the same. I can't physically pack us, but I will hire people to do so, and organize everything, and Allan will not work on our move, and he will meet his deadline.

The oasis

Through all this, I've had an unexpectedly wonderful oasis from stress: work. Go figure! On Thursday morning, still without hot water, I left the house feeling grumpy and irritable. I joined one of my Children's Library teammates for a presentation at "Literacy Camp" (a/k/a summer school). We had two groups of kids, one younger, one older; all have been identified as struggling readers.

For the younger kids, we started with a song, read a story, did a talk about the library, read another story, plugged Summer Reading Club, and ended with another song. For the older kids, we substituted "book talks" for the stories, reading a chapter from a funny book plus a scary story, did our library talk, and our summer reading club talk. Both groups were fully engaged and seemed to love it.

I left feeling great: happy, energized, laughing, with a great feeling of satisfaction. My irritable mood had vanished.

All week, my shifts at the reference desk and even in my office preparing for upcoming programming have been a wonderful respite from the stress of the upheaval at home.

Bonus list

If you're keeping score at home, for the younger kids, I read Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, a huge hit with the kids yelling "NO!" over and over. (Got to looove the Pigeon!) My teammate read Robert Munsch's Down the Drain, a more complicated but also very goofy story, with the kids making sound effects and hand motions.
For the older kids, I read a portion of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angelberger, and my teammate read one of Alvin Schwartz's scary stories. I also did a riff on the Guinness Book of World Records, and a plug for nonfiction along the lines of "we've got books on whatever you're interested in".

7.09.2013

in which a storm reaches our basement. through the toilet.

Our basement. Last night.



Looks like some Stephen King floating around.




That wood was once a piece of floorboard. Now a raft.


Toilet opening and shutting itself.






Last night more than a foot of water and sewage came gushing through the basement toilet. The basement is Allan's office. And I was useless with my broken foot. And the basement was completely dark from a power outage.

After our first flood in 2009, our landlord put in a completely new basement and washroom. That mess was trifling compared to this.

Today Allan has been moving all his books to the spare bedroom on the second floor - a lot of books up a lot of stairs - as they were beginning to warp from the damp.

Insurance claims have been filed all around. Who knows when clean-up crews will arrive.

We are not alone! Check out these amazing pics of the flooded Greater Toronto Area. And naturally this pales compared to Alberta. But please spare me the one-upmanship. It all sucks.

7.07.2013

simon says, grumpy bird, and an evil witch: summer reading club begins

Summer is the busiest time of year in the Central Children's Library. Actually, we are wildly busy any time school is out; the summer is just the most sustained period of busy-ness. Many of my colleagues have been preparing for summer programming since the end of March Break.

All through July and August, in libraries throughout Canada, kids will be participating in Summer Reading Club. The program uses incentives, activities, and fun programs to keep kids reading over the summer, which has been shown to improve their performance in school. It's fun, and it's free.

All Canadian libraries receive the same materials, which is really nice - kids can participate while they're visiting relatives or at a cottage with their family. But libraries plan their own programming, so we can be as creative as we want and can afford.

(The official name is "TD Summer Reading Club". It's designed through a partnership among Library and Archives Canada, Toronto Public Library, and TD Canada Trust. I grit my teeth through the corporate sponsorship, but the name... argh.)

Registration for Summer Reading Club began on July 2, and by July 4, we had signed up 180 kids. Each child receives an activity book, and a "passport," in which they'll record the titles of the books they read. They each write their name on a cut-out shape, and tape the shape to the wall. Each time they check in to report on their reading, they earn stickers, and their name goes on another cut-out shape on a different wall. The stickers tie in to a website, where more prizes are unlocked. The goal is registration, plus three reporting visits, earning a total of nine stickers.

In addition to all the reading and reporting, kids are invited to club "meetings": special programming every week. This past week for the big kickoff, we were outside on Celebration Square - a big public space adjacent to our library - playing games. After a rousing intro, the kids were divided up into teams, and teams rotated through six "stations," playing a different crazy game at each. With my broken foot, I was given a station with a canopy (shade!) and did a variation of Simon Says where the kids took turns leading the game.

The SRC launch had nothing to do with reading. It's meant to make the library a fun place, for kids to meet and interact with the staff, and generally give everyone a good feeling about the library. Then everyone is encouraged to sign up for Summer Reading Club. More than 75 kids took part.

Over the summer, a different staff member will lead the programming each week. Most do a storytime plus a craft. I'm hoping to do something a little different. I have most of the summer to plan my week, but I'll be very busy with other responsibilities - plus I'm inexperienced - so I'll need a lot of time for research and planning.

* * * *

Also this past week, I co-led a drop-in family storytime with a more experienced staff member. He led us in a large number of short action songs and finger plays. I read Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard and What's Your Sound, Hound the Hound? by Mo Willems, both heavy on the participation - making grumpy faces, marching in place, shouting out animal sounds. My teammate also read Oh No, George by Chris Haughton, with all the kids shouting "Ooohh nooo, George!".

This week also saw our two sold-out performances of a puppet show, a modern spin on Hansel and Gretl. Five of us (four puppeteers and a director) have been rehearsing for a while, and it was a smash success. I learned something very important: kids love puppet shows, and very few places put them on anymore. Many kids have never seen a puppet show. Apparently if you include a puppet show in library programming, it is a guaranteed hit.

After the show, we came out with our puppets and took questions, then let the kids dig through two huge buckets of puppets and do a little pupetting themselves. They absolutely loved it.

Throughout the summer, there will also be professional performers at the library - magic acts, puppet shows, music, drumming, dance. Unlike Summer Reading Club, these are not free, which I dislike. But tickets are inexpensive - two or three dollars - and most of our customers are glad for the air-conditioned diversions.

* * * *

It was such a busy week! I worked really hard, but instead of feeling wrung out and drained, at the end of each day I was energized and excited. I am having so much fun!

7.05.2013

healthy slow-cooker recipe of the week: sausage and three-bean stew

Whether this recipe qualifies as healthy depends on whether you think sausage can be part of a healthy diet. I buy sausage that is made from local, organically raised turkey and free of preservatives. The sausage is slightly higher in saturated fat than skinless chicken breast, but way lower in fat than pork sausage. Plus at about a half-sausage per serving, you're not eating a huge amount of meat.

The sausage adds terrific flavour to the stew, and the combination of beans and meat make it very thick and hearty. If you can, get loose sausage meat, not in casings. If you can't, slit open the top of the casing and squeeze the sausage out of the tube.

4 turkey sausages (or 1-1.5 lbs of loose sausage meat) with Italian seasoning, sweet or spicy according to your preference
1 19-ounce can of white beans
1 19-ounce can of chick peas
1 13-ounce can of black beans
3-4 tomatoes, diced, or use 1 19-ounce can of tomatoes
2 medium or 1 large carrot, chopped
1 large onion, run through food processor
1 tablespoon dried oregano (or a bunch snipped from your garden if it's the season)
1 tablespoon dried basil (same as above)
fresh ground pepper

If you have actual sausages, squeeze the meat from the casings into a warm, nonstick skillet; if you have loose sausage meat, just put it in the skillet. Break the meat into small pieces and brown it. (Don't skip this step.) Add it to slower cooker.

Soften the onion and carrot in the same skillet, add to cooker.

Rinse and drain beans, and add to skillet. Add remaining ingredients, stir well to combine.

I didn't add any additional salt, because the sausage seasonings already contain salt. If you are used to saltier food, this may not be enough for you, so you could add a bit more.

Cook for 8 hours on low.

7.01.2013

everything else is either public relations or a misattributed quote

I saw this:



and thought: that doesn't sound like Orwell.

I have read almost everything Orwell ever published, and will eventually read everything, including all the published letters. While no one could remember every line from every essay, this just doesn't sound like our man Eric Blair to me. Orwell wasn't given to aphorisms or one-liners. It doesn't fit in the theme of any book or essay. The essay that seems most relevant, "Politics and the English Language," does not contain this line. I was skeptical.

I did several internet searches, hoping to find a source that attributed the quote to a specific book or essay. Nothing. The quote, attributed to Orwell, is all over the internet, but not one site ever indicates where it comes from. That seemed very significant. On this Wikiquote page, other people are asking the same question, and also not finding any attribution to specific work.

I posted about it on Facebook, hoping someone might have an idea on how to research it. One friend had the excellent idea of asking an Orwell expert.

I emailed six people who have either written books about Orwell, curated exhibits about him, or run websites relating to his work. Two authors responded and told me that in their research, they never came upon the quote, anywhere. That's likely the closest we can ever come to ruling out that Orwell wrote that line.

Finally, La Zerbisias, as I like to call her, turned me on to the fascinating rabbit-hole Quote Investigator. Check out QI's extensive research on the "everything else is public relations" line. Similar quotes have been attributed to: George Orwell, Alfred Harmsworth, William Randolph Hearst, Brian R. Roberts, Malcolm Muggeridge, Katharine Graham, Lord Rothermere, and Lord Northcliffe. Their conclusion: anonymous.

It's tempting to blame the internet age for all this misattribution, but that's just shooting the messenger. As QI clearly shows, false attributions were common long before the digital age. The internet just spreads them faster.

If you enjoy fake-quotation research, you might like to read (or re-read) this wmtc post about some famous lines Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson never said: you can look it up. If nothing else, scroll down to enjoy the pics and the comments.

happy canada day, a/k/a national stop harper day

This week, pollster Nik Nanos revealed that 51.5% of Canadian voters would not consider voting for the Conservative party, compared to 36.4% only seven months ago.

I don't play the national pastime - election prediction - so I won't speculate about if or how this poll will translate on the ground. Whether we'll have to wait until 2015 to get rid of this corrupt, fraudulent, anti-democracy, anti-human, anti-labour, anti-environment, corporate government - and whether Canadian voters will be hoodwinked by another party with almost identical policies but a friendlier face (and famous last name) - remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, all we can do is educate and mobilize. In Egypt yesterday, nearly as many people as live in our entire country were in the streets, demanding the "president" resign. In Brazil, people who live in the vast favelas (shantytowns) joined the massive, ongoing protests that overshadowed the football tournament. Compared to these inspiring examples, the organizing in Canada is microscopic. On the other hand, 2012 National Stop Harper Day saw events in 11 cities; this year that number is 22.

Some sources give June 28 as National Stop Harper Day and July 1 as Save Canada Day; others only use the July 1 date. I'm just glad people are organizing. One way to get involved is to support the Democracy 24/7 campaign. Demand fair elections. That would be a start.