happy new year from wmtc

"Hey Diego, wanna hear a secret...?"
It's been an exciting year here in wmtc-Joy of Sox-land: me working full-time in my new career, completing a year as a youth-services librarian, Allan publishing a new book, which was well received and got great reviews.

It looks to be an exciting year ahead, too: I was recently elected head of our library workers' union. Our membership finally has an appetite for a stronger union, and we have a revamped leadership team to show for it. I expect all my accumulated experience and skills will be put to the test as I navigate some brand-new territory.

Other than that, let's see. Read a lot, wrote too little, watched a lot of things on Netflix. Suggested lots of books to lots of people, answered a ton of questions. Helped some great teens read, discover, create, and socialize. Went to Paris with my mother. Participated in an inspiring socialism conference.

Took the dogs - both in good health - to the park at every opportunity. Sat in my backyard and drank iced coffee, also at every opportunity. Paid off a lot of debt, enough to start thinking about our next big trip.

I'm looking forward to a lot more of the same, plus one huge change: 2015 is the end of the Harper Government.

I wish you all a wonderful year ahead, full of good friends, good health, good books, and unexpected joys. Happy New Year!


what i'm reading: four classic graphic novels for adults who think they don't like graphic novels

Despite the increased attention given to graphic novels in recent years, many readers don't consider graphic novels when thinking about what to read next. In this "what i'm reading" post, I highlight four graphic novels considered classics of the form.

At least three of these books are included on high school and university curricula, and taken seriously as literature. These are certainly not the only graphic novels to achieve that standing, but if you asked a bunch of non-graphic-fiction readers to name some well-known and influential graphic novels, these would likely top the list. Each is worth reading, and perhaps will lead you to explore the format. (Or not.)

First on any such list has to be Maus (now known as Maus I: My Father Bleeds History). Art Spiegelman is the godfather of the modern graphic novel, and this book, first published in 1986, might be his best work. It is a foundational work of graphic fiction, and a definitive work of the Holocaust.

Maus is both disturbingly realistic and a fable. In this Holocaust tale, the Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, the Poles are pigs, the French are frogs, and the Americans are dogs. The effect invites the reader to imagine familiar events in new ways. That alone is a tremendous feat.

To write Maus, Spiegelman interviewed his father Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, about his experiences. The book recounts those, but also reflects on the burdens of the next generation, and the burdens of knowledge that successive generations must confront.

To date, Maus is the only graphic fiction to win the Pulitzer Prize. The Wall Street Journal called it "the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust"; the New York Times anointed it "the first masterpiece in comic book history".

Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began (1992), which I own but have never read, focuses on Spiegelman's difficult relationship with his father, illuminating the unique experience of the adult children of Holocaust survivors.

In 2011, Spiegelman published MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, a beautiful "making of" book. There is also The Complete Maus, 25th Anniversary Edition, which dates that quarter-century from when Spiegelman was publishing the material in serial form in his Raw, his comics magazine.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is Marjane Satrapi's memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.

Satrapi weaves a condensed but vivid history of Persia/Iran into her family's history and her own coming-of-age. Satrapi was a rebellious, outspoken child raised by Marxist parents who were also descendants of Iran's last emperor. She witnesses the overthrow of the Shah, the installation of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating war with Iraq with a child's incomplete understandings and sensitivities - and also a child's egocentrism.

Persepolis is funny, sad, sweet, and revealing. It is political, historical, and deeply personal. I think most Western readers would find the history portions fascinating and new.

The stark black-and-white drawings are powerful, easy to interpret, and deepen the reader's understanding - something graphic novel illustrations should, but don't, always do.

Persepolis was originally published in French; the English translation was published in 2003, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return in 2005, and the excellent movie adaptation came out in 2007.

Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes, is an ode to teenage alienation.

Two girls, best friends, spend their days wandering around their unnamed town (somewhere in the US), criticizing everyone and wondering what shape their lives will take. As they grow up, they also grow apart, as each must decide whether to leave behind the shield of ironic detachment and cynicism and participate in the world.

Clowes quite brilliantly captures a type of teenage experience that is easily dismissed or misinterpreted from the outside. You can feel the longing that lies beneath the cynicism.

Like our two anti-heroes, Ghost World is more a meandering collection of scenes than a fully realized story, the form perfectly reflecting the characters' reality. (If I recall correctly, the movie, which I liked very much, is stronger on plot than the book.)

It's a fast read, but can leave you wondering what you missed. But then it's worth reading a second time.

Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth was, I believe, the first adult graphic novel I ever read.

Ware's illustrations are more complex, less straightforward, and more varied than any other graphic novelist I'm familiar with. His style can make for a challenging read.

Add to that, the story itself is extremely sad - a study of generations of abandonment, loneliness, fear, and depression. Jimmy Corrigan is very good, but I recommend it with a warning sticker. Although I read it many years ago, just thinking about it makes my heart ache.


what i'm reading: pro: reclaiming abortion rights by katha pollitt

Katha Pollitt's new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, is a powerful gust of fresh, clean air that blows away the toxic stench of the current discourse about abortion.

Pro is a thorough, no-holds-barred takedown of the hypocrisy of anti-abortion-rights movement - not only in the most obvious sense that people who claim to be "pro-life" also (usually) support war and the death penalty, oppose gun control, and encourage lethal terrorism against abortion providers and clinic staff, and of people who claim to care about women and children, but oppose all social supports that might improve the lives of actual living children. Pro also exposes the perhaps less obvious hypocrisy of how the anti-abortion movement has created conditions that result in more unwanted pregnancies, more abortion, more later abortions, and less safe abortions. Using unassailable logic and facts, Pollitt exposes what the real agenda of the anti-abortion movement is and has always been: punishing women for trying to live modern, emancipated lives.

She exposes, too, the contradictions in how the current abortion debate is framed, and how the majority of people - not the vehemently pro-choice or the vehemently anti-abortion, but the "muddled middle," as Pollitt calls it - thinks about abortion. The vast majority of North Americans, it appears, believes abortion should be safe and legal, but also regard the procedure with distaste, discomfort, and shame. Pollitt makes it sparklingly clear why "legal, but..." doesn't work, why it can't work, and why we shouldn't want it.

This book is about something many people might find a strange contradiction: reclaiming abortion as a social good.
First, the concept of personhood, as applied to the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and at least until late in pregnancy, fetus, makes no sense: It's an incoherent, covertly religious idea that falls apart if you look at it closely. Few people actually believe it, as is shown by the exceptions they are willing to make.

Second, the absolutist argument that abortion is murder is a mask by which people opposed to the sexual revolution and women's advancement obscure their real motives and agenda: turning back the clock to an idealized, oversimplified past when sex was confined within marriage, men were the breadwinners and heads of families, Christianity was America's not-quite-official religion, and society was firmly ordered.

Third, since critiquing what came before does not necessarily help us move forward, I want to help reframe the way we think about abortion. There are definitely short-term advantages to stressing the anguish some women feel when facing the need to end a pregnancy, but in the long run presenting that as a general truth will hurt the pro-choice cause: It comes close to demanding that women accept grief, shame, and stigma as the price of ending a pregnancy. I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud. The anti-abortion movement has been far too successful at painting abortion as bad for women. I want to argue, to the contrary, that it is an essential option for women - not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul destroying situations, but all women - and thus benefits society as a whole.
For anyone deeply involved in the pro-choice movement, as I have been, Pollitt breaks no new ground. You'll be familiar with all the ideas, trends, and arguments. But to read them all gathered together, laid out logically, backed by impeccable research, and pronounced without apology in Pollitt's lively, witty style, is thrilling.

For people who think of themselves as "pro-choice but" - the muddled middle, the majority, who say abortion should be legal and permissible in certain circumstances - this book is for you. Pollitt argues in the clearest, most convincing manner: none of your restrictions make sense. All of them must go. If that seems extreme, read this book with an open mind, then see how you feel.

Pro is written in a US context, and it's important for everyone in the US to read, especially moderate liberals who adopt the "safe, legal, and rare" position.

But this is an important book for Canadians to read, too. Without directly referencing the history of abortion rights in Canada, Pollitt shows us why Dr. Henry Morgentaler and the movement that grew around his work were correct to insist on no abortion law, and why Canada's courts were correct to realize that was necessary. The arguments in Pro explain why the pro-choice movement in Canada kicks up such a loud and sustained noise every time proposed legislation threatens to restrict abortion rights. (The Harper government has tested the waters many times under the guise of private members' bills. Rights don't protect themselves.)

Pollitt argues for abortion as a basic human right: necessary to women's full participation in society, necessary for her survival and her safety, not just in extreme circumstances, but in all circumstances. She excoriates the hypocrisy of a society that worships motherhood as an abstract concept, but in reality, so belittles and minimizes the experience of parenthood as to imagine that a woman can simply have a baby and raise a child any time she becomes pregnant, no matter her current life circumstances - then dismisses the notion that she must do otherwise as abortions "for convenience".

Pollitt also widens the lens to include all aspects of reproductive justice, including access to affordable and reliable birth control, free and affordable childcare, paid parental leave, and working hours designed for working parents. She places abortion in an historical context - it has always existed, in all societies and in all eras - and reminds us what happens to women who live in Ecuador, Ireland, most of the US, and other countries where women's access to this basic, necessary health care has been denied.

After teasing out the many sacrifices, the pain, the accommodation, the compromises, that women routinely make in order to bear children, Pollitt writes:
To force girls and women to undergo all this against their will is to annihilate their humanity.
And that is the bottom line.

Pro is an eloquent, sustained wake-up call. I hope you will all read it.


in which my annual noncelebration of christmas causes my jewish cultural roots to reappear, a tiny bit

Two years ago, wmtc's annual "i hate christmas" post declared: "i hate christmas is slightly less hateful this year".

Working in the library, as opposed to an office environment, I found getting through the holiday season much less trying.

No more co-workers - at their computers, able to talk while they work - going on (and on and on and on...) about what they are buying for whom, reciting their shopping lists, a mind-numbing litany of consumption. My co-workers now are too busy, and several magnitudes less self-absorbed, to inflict that on anyone.

And it wasn't just the absence of a negative. Colleagues described holiday celebrations that had nothing to do with shopping. Traditions that are meaningful and truly joyous: what a concept!

This year several of my library colleagues, unbeknownst to them, gave me another reason to hate Christmas less: they wished me a Happy Hanukkah. And something strange happened: I felt my Jewishness a bit more.

When one co-worker first inquired about my Hanukkah (in the context of an unrelated email discussion), I said I didn't know when it started, and made a joke about being a "bad Jew". Super-sensitive soul that she is, she apologized and hoped she wished me no offense. Far from it! In fact, I was touched and impressed that she remembered that (a) I don't celebrate Christmas, and (b) I am Jewish. (I told her this, of course.)

Then another, then several, colleagues wished me a Happy Hanukkah. Some of those celebrate Christmas, others do not. I was really touched that they would remember. It's not like I talk about being Jewish, or even take time off for the High Holidays in the fall. One colleague asked me about Hanukkah, what it means, what the traditions are, just as I have done with others about Diwali and Eid.

And you know what? I played along. I accepted their Hanukkah wishes with thanks. I talked about the holiday. And... I felt Jewish.

I gave up celebrating Jewish holidays a long time ago, finding it incompatible with my atheism. Said atheism is hardcore, and in no danger of dissolution. But now I wonder if, like many secular Jews, I might enjoy some of it again.

So this year, do I hate Christmas? Let's see. Streaming-only TV and movies means no constant barrage of advertising. Library workplace means not forced listening to My Story of Pointless Consumption, plus unexpected exposure to genuine holiday cheer and goodwill. It's led to a slight re-emergence of my cultural roots. Plus I get two days off with pay. (When you're freelancing, no one pays you for holidays.)

Everything on this list still applies. But it's all a lot easier to bear.


u.s. war resister corey glass speaks out from europe

Corey Glass, war resister from Canada by way of Indiana, speaks out from his travels in Europe in the current issue of NOW.
I'm not going to bother to tell you that the Iraq War was wrong or quote the UN handbook on refugees, Geneva Conventions, Nuremberg principles or trials.

Nor am I going to try to convince anyone that soldiers should have the right to say no, that prosecution for a belief is persecution, or that recruiters lie. There's no reason to talk about that, or about how Canada didn't take part in the Iraq War. Or why Canadian troops are in Iraq now.

Everyone knows what happened and can find information on all that online. I'm fine with my choices. I have to deal with the repercussions of them every day.

I didn't take the easy road to do what I believe was right. And I don't really feel I need to convince anyone otherwise.

I will talk about what has happened to me since I quit the U.S. Army, went to Canada to escape the war and, after eight years trying to build a life there, was told I had to leave. . . .

Eventually I would run out of savings and favours. I started to understand how easy it is for war vets to become homeless, remembering the vets holding signs to that effect from my younger days in Manhattan. Would this be me? Would a government change in Canada allow me to come home? What if Shepherd wins asylum? Could Germany be a home someday? All these questions made me anxious, so I ordered a shot of Jameson.

What would happen if I just went back to the States? Maybe they would take it easy on me? They didn't on Chelsea Manning - 25 years for whistle-blowing. I'd be 57 when I get out. For quitting a job? Fuck that! More angst. Another shot.

I remembered losing friends back in the U.S. because of my choice to resist going back to war in Iraq.

A childhood friend who I had joined the service with - he hated me for leaving - called me out of the blue that night. We spoke for about an hour. He apologized for being angry with me. He was out of the military now and said I'd done the right thing. He wished he'd left, too.

He's an alcoholic now, and said the VA was not giving him support for his PTSD. After three tours, he was all messed up with nightmares. His wife was leaving him, and he was about to lose his job, the sixth in the last year. He wanted to die and wished he had in Iraq. He cried hard into the phone and said he was sorry. . . .
Read it here.


what i'm reading: lost memory of skin by russell banks

Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks' 2011 novel, begins with an impossible paradox.

A group of men are living in an encampment under a highway. It is, in fact, the only place they can live.

Each of them has been convicted of some crime involving sex. The state, in a moral panic over child pornography, has decreed that after serving time in prison, a former sex offender cannot live within 2,500 feet of any place where children may be present: schools, public parks, bus stops - and homeless shelters. The men wear homing devices on their ankles to enforce compliance, and they are not allowed to leave the county. One problem: there is no residence in the county that is more than 2,500 feet from any forbidden zone.

It's easy enough to dismiss this concern: who cares about these people, they are scum, they are worthless. But the fact remains, they exist. They must live somewhere. And there is literally no place they can live. And so, these social pariahs have formed a ragged little encampment under a highway, where they live in scavenged shanties.  (This situation is real; it has been challenged by the ACLU.)

This is the untenable paradox, the premise of Lost Memory of Skin. The Kid, the main character whose real name we never learn, lives in this shanty town. Until politicians vowing to "clean up" the homeless send cops to break bones and smash what passes for shelter.

The Kid is not a bad person, and he is not dangerous. The crime that has led him to this marginal existence is slowly revealed to the reader, and is stupid and pathetic, but not heinous. The Kid is lost, and confused, and socially maladjusted, the result of a lifetime of total neglect, an utterly empty childhood that he filled with internet porn. He's a sad and sympathetic character; readers might not like the Kid, but most will view him with compassion.

Into the Kid's life comes the Professor: a genius, a socially successful person, but also a person with a dark past, with secrets, and with his own deficiencies and his own addiction. The Professor has some theories about sex offenders, and he wants to study the Kid to prove them. He also wants to use the Kid for his own purposes - not sexual, but shadowy and illegal nonetheless.

His relationship with the Professor changes the Kid, and those changes begin to sort out of some of his emotional and mental confusion... but the plot thickens. Is the professor who he says he is? Towards the end of the book, another character enters the mix: the Writer. The Writer appears to be a stand-in for Banks himself, who asserts some philosophical guideposts and offers some clues as to how to read the book (and functions as a plot device). In lesser hands, this would have been awkward, even ridiculous, but Banks pulls it off.

When I write about books, I often skim reviews from sources I respect to get a feel for what critics thought. Most critics felt this book was worthwhile, even important, but their interpretation differed widely from mine. For example, it is widely assumed that the Professor's theories about child sex offenders are Russell Banks' own views. I find plenty of evidence in the book that they are not; in fact, the Professor's theories are disproven, or at least questioned, as soon as they are espoused.

One theme running through Lost Memory of Skin concerns how we construct our sense of our selves - how and to what extent we shape our own reality. The Professor has a dark past, and has re-invented himself many times over. The Kid must form his self almost from scratch, as a young adult, with very little to guide him. The Writer has his own theories, but it's unclear whether the Writer offers guidance or more confusion. I saw this theme as central to the novel, yet not one reviewer (of the ones I read) even mentioned it.

Lost Memory of Skin is an absorbing novel, sometimes suspenseful, sometimes achingly sad, sometimes a bit strange. Parts feel bumpy and require a certain faith from the reader, but Russell Banks has earned that faith from me. Like all Banks' novels, this one is beautifully written, thought-provoking, and well worth your time.


athletes in solidarity against unpunished police abuse crimes murder

Derrick Rose

Reggie Bush

Davin Joseph

Eric Garner

bobby keys, 1943-2014

Terrible news for the music world this week, and for the world of unabashed, unrepentant, hard partying rock-and-roll.

I have loved Bobby Keys for as long as I've known of his existence, which is to say a very long time. If you read Life, Keith Richards' memoirs, you know a few good Bobby Keys stories. And if you love the music of the Rolling Stones' best years, you've been loving Bobby Keys, too.

Keith and Bobby shared a birthday, and much of their lives. The death of Bobby Keys hits Stones' fans with a special kind of force.

Bobby Keys: Bruce Weber writes about him here.


10 reasons you should participate in write for rights on wednesday, december 10

This Wednesday, December 10, is Human Rights Day. The date was chosen to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, the first document of its kind.

Every year on December 10, Amnesty International holds a global letter-writing event: Write For Rights (in Canada). Thousands of people around the world write letters calling for action for victims of human rights abuses, and offering comfort and support to political prisoners.

Here are 10 reasons you should participate in Write For Rights 2014.

1. It's easy. Amnesty makes it really easy to participate. Read, type, send.

2. You can do do it from any computer. No meetings to attend, no schedule to keep. Just more of something you do all the time anyway: typing.

3. It's free. No need to donate money. The most this will cost you is postage.

4. You'll feel good about yourself. Enjoy that warm buzz you get from voluntarily helping other people. There's nothing quite like it.

5. You can choose how much to participate. Write one letter, write two letters, write three. Spend 10 minutes writing or spend an hour.

6. You can choose what to focus on. Write about an issue in your own country. Write about an issue in your country of origin. Write for children, or for women, or for LGBT people, or for workers, or for environmental activists, or for another issue that you care about.

7. You're busting stereotypes. We supposedly live in a selfish age where all we care about is I, me, mine. Challenge yourself to say it ain't so.

8. It works globally. Every fight against injustice begins with someone shining a light in a dark place. Be that light.

9. It works locally. When political prisoners are released, they often attest to the difference letters from strangers made in their lives: that knowing they were not forgotten helped them survive.

10. You enjoy your own human rights every day. Why not use them to help someone who can't?

Write for Rights in Canada

Write for Rights in the US

Write for Rights internationally.

On Facebook

Twitter: #Write4Rights


#strikefastfood: low-wage workers in 150 cities will strike today

Two years ago, fast-food workers in New York City held a one-day strike. In that historic action, the result of months and even years of organizing, about 200 workers walked out of McDonald's, Wendy's, KFC, and other restaurants, to form the largest work stoppage in the history of fast-food. In the process, they launched a movement.

In the two years since then, the movement has burgeoned, and now includes thousands of workers all over the United States. Workers are rising against shockingly low pay in an industry that rakes in billions. The CEOs of the various fast-food companies "earn" about $25,000 a day. In New York City, one of the world's most expensive places to live, front-line workers in the same industry earn $7.25 an hour before taxes. 

The fast-food industry is a prime culprit in the huge and ever-growing income inequality that plagues North America, undermining what's left of democracy.

Fast-food workers want more than better pay: they want a bit of control over their own working conditions. That is, they want the right to unionize without fear of retaliation or intimidation. It's not just the fight for 15. It's the fight for fifteen and a union

Workers in the Walmart and fast-food struggles are standing in solidarity with the people of Ferguson and New York City who are protesting police abuse, recognizing, as King famously said, that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

You can support today's fast-food strike in many ways: sign a statement, tweet your support with the hashtag #StrikeFastFood, or best of all, visit a picket - offer support, listen, learn, and lend a hand. 


rtod: this changes everything

Revolutionary thought of the day:
All of this is why any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect. Because what is overwhelming about the climate challenge is that it requires breaking so many rules at once - rules written into national laws and trade agreements, as well as powerful unwritten rules that tell us that no government can increase taxes and stay in power, or say no to major investments no matter how damaging, or plan to gradually contract those parts of our economics that endanger us all. . . .

This is another lesson from the transformative movements of the past: all of them understood that the process of shifting cultural values - though somewhat ephemeral and difficult to quantify - was central to their work. And so they dreamed in public, showed humanity a better version of itself, modeled different values in their own behavior, and in the process liberated the political imagination and rapidly altered the sense of what was possible. They were also unafraid of the language of morality - to give the pragmatic, cost-benefit arguments a rest and speak of right and wrong, or love and indignation. . . . .

As the historian David Brion Davis writes, abolitionists understood that their role was not merely to ban an abhorrent practice but to try to change the deeply entrenched values that had made slavery acceptable in the first place.

-- Naomi Klein, from This Changes Everything


what i'm reading: this changes everything by naomi klein, one of the most important books you'll ever read

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein, is incredibly difficult to write about. I've been putting sticky notes beside important paragraphs as I read, and my copy now looks like an art project, bristling with coloured paper squares. I can say without exaggeration that this is one of the most important books you'll ever read.

In her clear, readable prose, Klein demonstrates exactly what is destroying our planet: unregulated, unchecked capitalism, brought to you by the scourge of our era: neoliberalism. (US readers may be more familiar with the term neoconservatism.)

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Klein showed us how corporate interests exploit crises to enact policies that enrich a small elite, using the holy trinity of neoliberalism: privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending. Now Klein widens her lens to demonstrate how that same orientation actively prevents us from taking the necessary steps to halt and reverse climate change, and with it, the impending destruction of a habitable Earth.

To reverse warming, reverse course

Klein succinctly and precisely diagnoses the root problem. In order to challenge climate change, in order to reverse a course that threatens billions of lives and is ultimately suicidal for humanity, radical change is required. We must stop living as if infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. This goes way beyond separating our trash into different bins and using more efficient light bulbs. It means dismantling the fossil-fuel industry, powering our entire society with renewable energy sources (it is possible!), and ultimately, abandoning the idea of growth as the basis for our economies.

Tackling climate change means, ultimately, dismantling neoliberalism itself.
A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.
This means rethinking the false notion of "free" trade. Ontario, for example, would be decades ahead in wind and solar production, not to mention good, green jobs, but for the crippling mandates of free-trade agreements. "Free" deserves scare quotes.
Not only do fossil fuel companies receive $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies, but they pay nothing for the privilege of treating our shared atmosphere as a free waste dump.
Klein reminds us that if free-trade regulations block our ability to disrupt our dependence on fossil fuels, then those regulations must be rewritten. And so it goes for any number of policies that express the neoliberal ideology, which, as Klein writes, "form a ideological wall that has blocked a serious response to climate change for decades."

Of course, nothing is free; the question is who pays the price. The price may be unemployment, or jobs that can't sustain a decent life, or overcrowded classrooms, or a generation condemned to poverty-stricken old age. The price may be flammable drinking water, or whole villages beset by rare cancers. The neoliberal agenda wreaks its havoc in ways seen and unseen. Shell's Arctic oil rig ran aground when it braved impassable winter weather, attempting to beat a timeline that would trigger additional taxes. In Montreal, the MM&A rail company received government permission to cut the number of staff on its trains from five to a single engineer: thus the Lac-Megantic disaster. However measured, it's a price paid by ordinary people, while corporations wallow in profit.

Less carbon means more democracy

In turn, dismantling neoliberalism would mean rethinking our governments, too, as democracies driven by lobbyists, corporate donors, and industry interests - valuing profits over people - pave the way for policies that are killing us all. Can a society where this can happen be rightly considered democratic?
...the most jarring part of the grassroots anti-extraction uprising has been the rude realization that most communities do appear to lack this power; that outside forces - a far-off central government, working hand-in-glove with transnational companies - are simply imposing enormous health and safety risks on residents, even when that means overturning local laws. Fracking, tar sands pipelines, coal trains, and export terminals are being proposed in many parts of the world where clear majorities of the population has made its opposition unmistakable, at the ballot box, through official consultation processes, and in the streets.

And yet consent seems beside the point. Again and again, after failing to persuade communities that these projects are in their genuine best interest, governments are teaming up with corporate players to roll over the opposition, using a combination of physical violence and draconian legal tools reclassifying peaceful activists as terrorists.

....Only two out of the over one thousand people who spoke at the panel's community hearings in British Columbia supported the project. One poll showed that 80 percent of the province's residents opposed having more oil tankers along their marine-rich coastline. That a supposedly impartial review body could rule in favor of the pipeline in the face of this kind of overwhelming opposition was seen by many in Canada as clear evidence of a serious underlying crisis, one far more about money and power than the environment.
When reviewing the proposed solutions to climate change, Klein skewers the chimeras that don't and can't work, from the corporate boondoggle known as cap-and-trade, to various technological fixes that would take our fantasy of controlling nature to bizarre new heights.
Indeed, if geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative, the one in which so many of us have been indoctrinated by organized religion and the rest of us have absorbed from pretty much every Hollywood action movie ever made. It's the one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved. And since our secular religion is technology, it won't be god that saves us but Bill Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures.
Klein also heaps contempt on the so-called partnerships between large environmental organizations and the fossil-fuel industry, which are something like the partnership between the pig and Oscar Mayer. As Klein puts it, "the 'market-based' climate solutions favored by so many large foundations and adopted by many greens have provided an invaluable service to the fossil fuel sector as a whole."

Already changing everything: Blockadia

This Changes Everything illuminates an impressive array of activism, introducing most readers, I'm guessing, to a new expression: Blockadia. Blockadia represents the global, grassroots, broad-based networks of resistance to high-risk extreme extraction. From Greece to the Amazon to New Zealand to Montana to British Columbia, the resistance is in motion. Taking many forms - the divestment movement pressuring institutions to sever economic ties with the fossil-fuel industry, the towns declaring themselves "fracking free zones", the civil disobedience that physically slows the building of pipelines while court challenges continue - Blockadia is creating space for public debate and the possibility of change.

In many places, Blockadia is led by people from indigenous communities. Not only are indigenous peoples often the first victims of climate destruction - witness, for example, the off-the-chart cancer rates of First Nations people living downstream from Canada's tar sands - but their worldviews may form the basis of our way forward. On a Montana reservation where young Cheyenne are learning how to install solar energy systems - cutting residents' utility bills by 90% while learning a trade, creating an alternative to a life spent working for the coal industry - a female student makes this observation:
Solar power, she said, embodied the worldview in which she had been raised, one in which "You don't take and take and take. And you don't consume and consume and consume. You take what you need and then you put back into the land."
I despair. But it doesn't matter.

I want everyone to read this book, and because of that, I hesitate to share this unfortunate truth: ultimately, This Changes Everything filled me with hopelessness and despair. I wouldn't say it made me pessimistic, as I am optimistic about humankind's ability to change ourselves and our systems, if we choose to. Rather, the book filled me with outright hopelessness, because I don't believe we will even have the opportunity to make that choice. The forces aligned against the necessary changes are massive, and massively powerful. Untold profits depend on the system not changing, and what's more, gargantuan profits are being reaped off the destruction itself. The oligarchs who profit from climate change are associated with the most powerful tools of violence ever known - the mightiest armies and the greatest amorality.

Adding to the difficulty, our society clings to what Klein calls "the fetish of centrism": of the appearance of reasonableness, of "splitting the difference, and generally not getting overly excited about anything". This is the illogic that dictates we must "balance" the interests of the petroleum industry with our need for clean water, or the profits of real estate developers with the human need for shelter. This fetish of centrism allows the government and its partners in the media to label as "extremists" people who want to protect water and land from catastrophic oil spills.

Added to this, huge numbers of ordinary people, led by corporate media and astroturf faux activists, align themselves against their own interests, stoked by fears of imagined foes (be they communists, immigrants, or feminists) and cling to notions of a supposedly free market, which in reality is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. This global market is anything but free: the risk is socialized in every way possible, but the returns are strictly privatized.

If you've read Jared Diamond's Collapse, you are familiar with the concept that societies don't always do what's best for them. Societies make choices that ultimately chart their own demise. I do not despair of our ability to remake our world, but I know that the forces aligned against us will stop at nothing to prevent us from doing so. The most powerful people on the planet can shield themselves from the effects of climate change until it is too late for the rest of us.

And yet... and yet. I feel hopeless, my feelings don't matter.

What matters is this: we have little time, and we must try. Resistance movements have changed cultures. Resistance movements have brought mighty empires to their knees, have ended deeply entrenched systems: slavery, colonialism, apartheid. For centuries, there was something called the Divine Right of Kings, a concept which must have seemed permanent and immutable. Now it does not exist. Capitalism, as currently practiced, is killing our planet - killing us. We cannot shrug our shoulders.

If you agree - and more importantly, if you disagree - read this book.


#walmartstrikers + international buy nothing day = don't shop at walmart

I don't know when people starting calling the day after US Thanksgiving "Black Friday," but the expression has become synonymous with over-consumption, empty consumer culture, and the bizarre importance assigned to hunting for bargains.

And what a bargain it is: a multibillion-dollar corporation sells a piece of crappy future landfill at an artificially low price by manufacturing it halfway around the globe with child labour, dumping toxins into the environment, and paying its own customers sub-living wages. In return, consumers agree to see nothing and know nothing except the price sticker. It's a deal that is devouring our planet, and our souls.

Those low, low prices on Black Friday are partly subsidized by Walmart employees, who earn crap wages, can't get full-time work, and are harassed and intimidated when speak up about their working conditions. This year, as in 2013 and 2012, Walmart workers will go on strike to demand change. And you can help them. Here's how.

First: don't shop at Walmart this holiday season.

Second: let Walmart know that you are boycotting their stores because of their unfair labour policies.

And third, if you're in the US: drop by a Walmart on Friday, November 28, to cheer on the strikers.

Even if you don't see a protest at your local Walmart, you can still participate: bring a sign saying that you support the workers fighting for fair pay and respect. Snap a selfie, and tweet it with the #walmartstrikers hashtag.

Feeling camera-shy? Write a letter a store manager. Walmart tracks every one of these actions, and collectively, they have a huge impact.

Go here for tips, instructions, and legalities. (In some states, there are legal injunctions against protesting in front of stores.)

For more on International Buy Nothing Day, Amy Mendoza, on xojane, gives us five reasons to buy nothing on Friday, December 28.


what i'm reading: swamplandia! by karen russell

Swamplandia! caught me by surprise. At first, Karen Russell's debut novel seemed like a quirky family story, a strange and somewhat sad tale told with great wit and humour.

Then it deepened, became (possibly) supernatural - or is that just the fantasy of a troubled girl? Then it quickened, and became suspenseful, and dangerous, and a bit heartbreaking. Step by strange step, I was hooked. Swamplandia! is not an easy book to describe, but more importantly, it's not an easy book to put down.

The Bigtree family lives in Swamplandia!, an old-fashioned roadside-attraction theme park deep in the Florida Everglades. In this case, the road is a swamp, tourists and any connection with the mainland world arrives by ferry.

Hilola Bigtree, matriarch of the strange brood, mother of the teenaged narrator, has died. (Not a spoiler.) Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree thought her mother's death was the bottom, the end. But the demise of famed alligator wrestler and main attraction of Swamplandia! was only the first link in a chain of events that would take Ava and each member of her family much farther down, into separate hells, and finally, to redemption.

If that sounds spooky or melodramatic, it is. But it's also very funny, and strange, and utterly credible, even when it's not remotely possible. The novel's quirkiness is reminiscent of John Irving at his best; the gallows humour not unlike Frank McCourt or Roddy Doyle. But the story and the language are deeply original.

Russell's language is as quirky as her story. "A brownish-orange algae that...could draw its pumpkin lace across the entire Pit overnight"; a tiny red alligator whose "skull was the exact shape and shining hue of a large halved strawberry". A poor boy's pennies are "a lintlike currency, value that collected in corners"; a chubby boy's jeans on her slim brother "fit him like a puddle"; the white jaw of an alligator "fell open like a suitcase". In Stiltsville, an abandoned swamp community, Ava awakens to "dawn light screaming through the doorways that hung on their hinges, the broken windows that birds could fly through, the plank lace, the cheesed metals".

The voice of Ava Bigtree, the narrator, is a stylistic triumph. Russell doesn't try to mimic the speech of a 13-year-old who has been raised in social isolation. Instead, she gives us a young girls' thoughts and mindset delivered in rich, adult language. It works.

The portion of the book that follows Kiwi Bigtree, Ava's brother - working in a Hell-themed tourist attraction, and his own private hell - is told in the third person. The switch is a bit jarring at first, but as Ava's story darkens, Kiwi's story becomes funnier and more hopeful. Alternating between the two threads builds suspense: the reader wonders how it will all come together, and how bad things will get before it does.

There are also stories within the story (John Irving-esque again). These are told with such precision of emotion and empathy, that, although impossible, they blur the distinction between reality and fantasy. The reader grapples with that issue along with Ava.

And throughout: the swamp. The untamed and untameable water-land, its wild beauty, its mysteries, its dangers, coexisting with the mundane world of bored mainland teenagers and tourists. The alligators, so vital to the Bigtree family's survival, are death machines lurking beneath every surface. But neither the Bigtrees nor the alligators are the most dangerous beasts on the swamp.

For more, I recommend this review of Swamplandia! in the New York Times Book Review from February, 2011. Better still, read the book.


when sexual assault goes public: #beenrapedneverreported and the presumption of innocence

The revelations about Jian Ghomeshi hit my Facebook feed in waves.

First many friends were shocked by CBC's announcement that they were "severing their relationship" with the longtime and very popular radio host. I don't listen to radio and I'm always surprised at how many people do.

Then came Ghomeshi's own statement, which one friend very perceptively recognized as likely Ghomeshi's attempt to get ahead of a story in which he would be accused of assault.

Then came his victims - now 14 people - who have courageously come forward to tell their stories.

Despite the corroboration of multiple victims, one Facebook contact of mine (a woman) continued to praise Ghomeshi for "pushing the boundaries of what the public finds acceptable sexually" - that is, a brave warrior for BDSM. I unfriended. BDSM has at least one thing in common with any other sexual activity: it's consensual. (See: poor persecuted pervert by Sex Geek.)

Whenever a famous and well-liked public figure is accused of sexual assault, the public's reaction serves as a microcosm - and a litmus test. First it's "He wouldn't do that!" - based on a public persona, as if rapists are somehow recognizable. They're certainly not good-looking, congenial, and hip! Then it's "If these women were assaulted, why didn't they report it?" and "They're only saying this to get attention!"

Statistics: YWCA Canada.
These ignorant reactions present an excellent opportunity for education. But for those of us who have been educating about rape half our lives, it can be so tiring. Do people still think these things? Do they still not understand? Is rape still shrouded in ignorance and myth? Yes. Yes. Yes. Sigh.


But that's the great thing about solidarity. When one of us is too tired or too disgusted or feeling too raw and vulnerable to do the work, a sister or brother will step up and do it twice as well.

Antonia Zerbisias, who very recently retired from The Star, along with her friend Sue Montgomery, also a journalist, started a hashtag on Twitter - and it took off, big-time. #BeenRapedNeverReported gave survivors a place to share, and it gave the media a peg on which to hang many excellent stories about why victims of sexual assault usually do not report the crime to the police. Sadly, #BeenRapedNeverReported is also awash with stories from women who did report, and wish they had not.

If you are hearing about this for the first time, the Twitter phenomenon has gotten some excellent media attention:
Women find power in #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag (Toronto Star),
#BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag trending, as women share stories of assault (CTV),
Women who were raped take to Twitter to explain why they didn't report it (Montreal Gazette),
#BeenRapedNeverReported: This was our way of silencing the silencers and denying those who would deny us our voices, our justice. (Al Jazeera English)
- Why women go online to report sexual assault but not to police (CBC, "The Current")...
and many others.

It would appear that most people actually don't know that the majority of rapes are not reported to the police. Why would that be? Here's an idea. (Please go and read the full story.)
So what kind of woman is reluctant to report sexual assault? Anyone who consumed drugs or alcohol before the incident, who was intoxicated; who flirted with, has a relationship with, knows, or has significantly lower status than the perpetrator.

Any woman who's had an abortion or messy divorce. Anyone who might be in a custody battle. Anyone with a sketchy social media history. Anyone who's sexted nude photos or has unorthodox sexual tastes.

Any sex worker. Anyone who initially consented to sex. Anyone with addiction issues. Anyone afraid of her assailant. Any First Nations woman. Anyone from a minority or immigrant community. Anyone who's been raped before and not been believed.

Anyone without a strong support network. Any woman who waits too long. Anyone who's seen a shrink, or been prescribed medication for mental or emotional conditions. Any woman who doesn't want her medical records or psychiatric history disclosed. Or who has family members and a community who could be hurt or shamed by disclosure or publicity. Anyone with a criminal record or who is on public assistance.

Any woman with a past. Any woman with a future she doesn't want derailed by the stress of reporting.

In short, the kind of woman who doesn't report a sexual attack is almost any normal rational woman.
The "presumption of innocence" and some other legal concepts

I once saw an online commenter claim that former district attorney Linda Fairstein said that 98% of rape accusations are false. (I think that was when I decided to stop reading comments on news stories.) What Fairstein really said: 98% of rapes don't generate enough legal evidence to be prosecuted as rape, so most are "bumped down" to another category, such as aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault with intent to harm, sodomy, sexual abuse, or other legal categories. These categories are legal distinctions, each carrying different implications for evidence and punishment. But they are all sexual assault.

Prosecutors routinely down-grade formal offenses to the highest level for which they feel they can get a conviction, a kind of legal gamble based on a whole raft of variables, from the likability of the accused to the perceived credibility of the victim, to what kind of defense the accused can afford. Prosecutors don't downgrade rape to other legal categories because they think the victim is lying, or because they're not sure if the accused actually did it. If they thought that, the case would never proceed to court in the first place!

Statistics: RAINN
The legal distinctions of rape, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, and so on, can denote all different things: whether or not a weapon was involved, whether the victim was tortured, what sexual acts were involved, whether the victim met the criteria for good victimhood (not a sex worker, not intoxicated or doing drugs), whether the victim and assailant knew each other, whether the victim and assailant had engaged in consensual sex in the past, and so on.

These are legal categories. And none of the categories have any bearing on whether or not a sexual assault occured. That definition is conveniently black-and-white. Was there consent? If no, it's sexual assault.

Think manslaughter versus murder: either way, someone has been killed.

If a friend of yours - or a student, your daughter, your niece, your colleague - discloses that she was raped, you would never ask, "Was that really rape, or was it aggravated sexual assault? Does that constitute sexual assault under the laws of Ontario? Is there enough evidence to prosecute?" You would never even think such a thing. You would know that the finer points of the law have nothing to do with your friend's pain.

Yet one legal concept is frequently invoked in just this inappropriate way: the presumption of innocence. As person after person came forward to say that Jian Ghomeshi had sexually assaulted them, people cried, "Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? He is innocent until proven guilty!"

The presumption of innocence - or "innocent until proven guilty" - is an important tenet of the legal and judicial systems, and one that is constantly undermined by practices such as pre-trial confinements. (See this excellent column by Carol Goar.) It is not some sort of golden rule that we should invoke by closing our minds to logic and reason.

A blogger I know once posted photos of her daughter's battered face - purple and green with bruises, eyes swollen shut, lips split and bloody - at the hands of her ex-husband. A commenter-troll said, "Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? Is this guy guilty before proven innocent?"

There was no question that the woman had been assaulted. And there was no question of who had assaulted her. Unless this assault was prosecuted and went to trial (two highly unlikely outcomes), no one had to think about any presumptions of innocence.

Legal guilt is not the only form of truth

Rape is rape whether it is reported, whether it is prosecuted, and whether a rapist is found guilty.

If a person is murdered, that person is dead, whether or not the murderer is ever tried or convicted. If you are mugged and someone runs off with your wallet, a crime has taken place, whether or not you report the crime to the police. Rape is the same way. If you are sexually assaulted or raped, that has taken place, regardless of what comes after. Most women do not report rape, and most reported rapes never go to trial. Does that mean those women were not raped?

Some people seem to think that a legal concept that allows an accused person certain rights in court is somehow applicable in a general sense. That somehow we must wait for a court to convict an offender before we admit what we have seen and heard with our own senses. As if the only kind of truth is the declaration of a court of law.

Or do they?

Have we really confused legal conviction with actual truth? I don't think so. In many cases, we will continue to believe an accused is innocent or guilty, despite what a jury declares. (O.J. Simpson, anyone?) But rape? Suddenly we need a conviction in court before we will believe a woman who says, "This man assaulted me".

I understand that there are false accusations of rape. They are rare, but they do occur. Sexual assault, however, is not rare. And we're not the legal system. We're not a jury. We're not bound by law to process information according to a certain formula. We're human beings, and we can operate from a place of both logic and compassion.

When someone takes a painful and courageous step forward to say, "I was raped": presume truth.

write a letter, save a life: sign up now for write for rights

For the past few years, I have participated in Write For Rights, Amnesty International's annual write-a-thon for human rights - actually the largest human rights event in the world (Canada; US; elsewhere: Google it.)

Every year, on December 10 - International Human Rights Day, which celebrates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - tens of thousands of people all over the world shine a light into darkness. By writing letters, we tell governments that someone is watching. We tell political prisoners - people in jail for opposing dictatorships, for fighting for clean water for their communities, for standing up for women and girls - that they have not been forgotten.

It's really simple to do. Amnesty gives you "case sheets" with background stories and instructions, plus tips on letter-writing. And you write a letter. Or maybe more than one letter.

To make it more fun, you can invite a few friends, print out some case sheets, open a bottle of wine, and write letters together. Or to make it easier, you can write letters on your own. Either way, it's easy and not very time-consuming. And it makes a tremendous difference to people who are enduring real suffering.

After participating in Write for Rights for a few years, I decided to take the next step and join Amnesty's Urgent Action Network. This, too, is not a huge time commitment and not difficult to do. There are no meetings to attend and no fundraising involved. Just you and your keyboard or pen.

The greatest thing about doing activism for Amnesty is knowing that their methods work. Amnesty campaigns have helped win release for political prisoners all over the world. Their observers have helped expose injustice and begun the process of change. And time and again, when activists are finally released from prison, they say, "Without your letters, I couldn't have made it through," or "Knowing I was not forgotten helped me survive". That's a big incentive right there.

If you've never participated before, how about it? This December 10: one letter. Take the pledge.


e.u. advocate general ruling strongly supports claim of war resister andré shepherd

The fight for justice for US war resisters took a major step forward yesterday, with a ruling strongly in favour of war resister André Shepherd.
In the legal case of U.S. AWOL soldier André Shepherd (37) the European Court of Justice Advocate General, Eleanor Sharpton, today published her final opinion. This official statement contains guiding deliberations for the interpretation of the so-called Qualification Directive of the European Union. Amongst other considerations, these rules state that those endangered by prosecution or punishment for refusal to perform military service involving an illegal war or commital of war crimes, should be protected by the European Union.

André Shepherd, former U.S. Army helicopter mechanic in the Iraq War, during leave in Germany, left his unit and in 2008, requested asylum in that country. 2011, the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees refused Shepherd's application. Shepherd's resulting court action challenge resulted in the Munich Administrative Court's asking for the opinion of the European Court in Luxemburg on significant questions concerning the interpretation of the Qualification Directive. The Justice Advocate General came to the following conclusions:

- The protection guaranteed by the Qualification Directive is also applicable to soldiers not directly involved in combat, when their duties could support war crimes. The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has as yet failed to respect this definition.

- Within the asylum application process, a deserter is not obliged to prove that he was or could be involved in war crimes, as the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees required. Necessary is only the evidence of war crime probability, based on past occurrences.

- Even a U.N. mandate for a war, in which the deserter was, or could have been involved, cannot serve as grounds for rejection of his rights as a refugee.

. . . .

Rudi Friedrich of Connection e.V. stated today, “Should the European Union Court of Justice respect the Advocate General's final opinion, the position in asylum cases of military service refusers and deserters will be significantly reinforced.

Bernd Mesovic of PRO ASYL declared, “Should the Court acknowledge the content of the advocate general's final opinion, their verdict would set basic precedence. I hope that deserters will soon have better protection in all of Europe.”

André Shepherd, upon reading Sharpton's decision: The final opinion gives me new reason for optimism, both in my own case, and for the rights of other deserters.
Read more here.

This is a tremendous victory for Shepherd, for all his supporters, and for everyone who objects to wars for empire and profit. We can only hope that the European Court of Justice will listen.


11.11: honour the dead by committing to peace

Robert Fisk, in The Independent:
But as the years passed, old Bill Fisk became very ruminative about the Great War. He learned that Haig had lied, that he himself had fought for a world that betrayed him, that 20,000 British dead on the first day of the Somme – which he mercifully avoided because his first regiment, the Cheshires, sent him to Dublin and Cork to deal with another 1916 "problem" – was a trashing of human life. In hospital and recovering from cancer, I asked him once why the Great War was fought. "All I can tell you, fellah," he said, "was that it was a great waste." And he swept his hand from left to right. Then he stopped wearing his poppy. I asked him why, and he said that he didn't want to see "so many damn fools" wearing it – he was a provocative man and, sadly, I fell out with him in his old age. What he meant was that all kinds of people who had no idea of the suffering of the Great War – or the Second, for that matter – were now ostentatiously wearing a poppy for social or work-related reasons, to look patriotic and British when it suited them, to keep in with their friends and betters and employers. These people, he said to me once, had no idea what the trenches of France were like, what it felt like to have your friends die beside you and then to confront their brothers and wives and lovers and parents. At home, I still have a box of photographs of his mates, all of them killed in 1918.

So like my Dad, I stopped wearing the poppy on the week before Remembrance Day, 11 November, when on the 11th hour of the 11 month of 1918, the armistice ended the war called Great. I didn't feel I deserved to wear it and I didn't think it represented my thoughts. The original idea came, of course, from the Toronto military surgeon and poet John McCrae and was inspired by the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, killed on 3 May 1915. "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row." But it's a propaganda poem, urging readers to "take up the quarrel with the foe". Bill Fisk eventually understood this and turned against it. He was right.
Read the whole piece: Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?

I'm the only person in my workplace not wearing a poppy. This is when I appreciate the Canadian quiet live-and-let-live attitude and aversion to potential conflict. I'm sure the absence has been noted, but no one says anything.

No white poppy for me, either. It has no meaning to me.

I just wear my peace button on my jacket as always, and wait for the collective brainwashing to blow over. When our masters give the signal, everyone can take off the fake poppy - made with prison labour - and create a bit more landfill. And another annual ritual of war glorification comes to a close.

Meanwhile, in my country of origin...

David Masciotra, in Salon:
Put a man in uniform, preferably a white man, give him a gun, and Americans will worship him. It is a particularly childish trait, of a childlike culture, that insists on anointing all active military members and police officers as “heroes.” The rhetorical sloppiness and intellectual shallowness of affixing such a reverent label to everyone in the military or law enforcement betrays a frightening cultural streak of nationalism, chauvinism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism, but it also makes honest and serious conversations necessary for the maintenance and enhancement of a fragile democracy nearly impossible.

It has become impossible to go a week without reading a story about police brutality, abuse of power and misuse of authority. Michael Brown’s murder represents the tip of a body pile, and in just the past month, several videos have emerged of police assaulting people, including pregnant women, for reasons justifiable only to the insane.

It is equally challenging for anyone reasonable, and not drowning in the syrup of patriotic sentimentality, to stop saluting, and look at the servicemen of the American military with criticism and skepticism. There is a sexual assault epidemic in the military. In 2003, a Department of Defense study found that one-third of women seeking medical care in the VA system reported experiencing rape or sexual violence while in the military. Internal and external studies demonstrate that since the official study, numbers of sexual assaults within the military have only increased, especially with male victims. According to the Pentagon, 38 men are sexually assaulted every single day in the U.S. military. Given that rape and sexual assault are, traditionally, the most underreported crimes, the horrific statistics likely fail to capture the reality of the sexual dungeon that has become the United States military.

Chelsea Manning, now serving time in prison as a whistle-blower, uncovered multiple incidents of fellow soldiers laughing as they murdered civilians. Keith Gentry, a former Navy man, wrote that when he and his division were bored they preferred passing the time with the “entertainment” of YouTube videos capturing air raids of Iraq and Afghanistan, often making jokes and mocking the victims of American violence. If the murder of civilians, the rape of “brothers and sisters” on base, and the relegation of death and torture of strangers as fodder for amusement qualifies as heroism, the world needs better villains.
The essay: You don’t protect my freedom: Our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy.


dispatches from the community of readers' advisors: r.a. in a day 2014

Last week I attended "R.A. in a Day," an annual one-day mini-conference on readers' advisory - that is, finding books for readers.

It happens that the manager of my own "Readers' Den" department is one of the principal hosts of the conference, and the Mississauga Library was well-represented in the audience. More than 100 people attended from libraries throughout southern Ontario.

It was a joy to spend the day focusing on the singular pleasures of reading and the experience of people who read. Part of what makes doing readers' advisory fun is that you're already talking to a reader. You're not trying to convince anyone to read; you're a bridge between a reader and books. There are more passive forms of RA, such as book displays. But the active, one-on-one RA that this conference focuses on is - as you know - a part of my job that I really enjoy.

I'll highlight three speakers from the event.

Catherine Sheldrick Ross, into the minds of readers

Making this day especially noteworthy to me, the keynote speaker was a library hero of mine: Catherine Sheldrick Ross, the name in research on reading.

Some years back, I blogged about a book she co-authored, Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community. A chapter had been assigned reading, and I enjoyed it so much that I hunted down the book and read the whole thing. Let me tell you, in library school, that was a rare experience for me! I was so pleased to meet Dr. Ross and tell her I had blogged about her book. I'm going to send her the post, and I'll also read her newest book, The Pleasures of Reading: a Booklover's Alphabet.

An excellent and engaging speaker, Ross highlighted some of the results of her thirty-year inquiry into the minds of avid readers. Ross' research - in-depth interviews about the reading experience - has formed the basis of RA practice. Indeed, understanding the reader's experience is the key to good RA.

And that understanding begins with reflecting on our own experience. As you read these questions, think of how you read.

Are you a selective reader, feeling your time is very limited and what you read must always be very good and worthwhile? Or are you an ominvorous reader, reading everything from quality literature to genre novels and books others dismiss as "trash"?

Do you read only fiction, only nonfiction, or both?

Do you re-read books, feeling that books are old friends who should be re-visited and re-understood? Or do you feel that there are so many books to read and so little time, that you never or rarely read a book more than once?

How do you find your books? Do you have an organized system that you employ, or do you find books more randomly and haphazardly from an eclectic group of sources?

Through questions like these, we in the audience began to reflect on our own reading practices. We then did an exercise, each table discussing a different dimension of reading, and then sharing with the group. I am pleased (and kind of amazed) to say it was one of the more useful library exercises I've done. We could have gone on for twice as much time.

Many insights into the reading experience are nearly universal. Our choice of reading varies not only at different times in our lives, but at different moments, depending on what's going on in our lives at any particular moment. And reading is an enduring paradox. It takes us away from our own lives, into another world - the infamous "escape" that is often denigrated. Yet at the same time, reading broadens our scope, enriches us, strengthens our connections with the world. (Did you know that people who read tend to have more empathy than non-readers?)

Ross has written about a phenonmenon that most readers will relate to: she calls it "finding without seeking". You are reading a book for pleasure. Perhaps you picked it up randomly or were drawn to its beautiful cover, or read a review. You're reading it for pleasure, not information. But as you read it, you recognize something of yourself in the book: a relationship, or a dilemma, a conflict. You reflect on your own experience, and you end up learning, and growing. Ross says:
Readers choose books for the pleasure anticipated in the reading itself but then, apparently serendipitously, they encounter material that helps them in the contex of their lives. (Ross, Finding Without Seeking, 1999)
Although learning about RA begins with reflecting on our own experience, the most important dictum of RA is four little words: It's Not About You. Keeping our own opinions and judgements out of the picture can be challenging! Dr. Ross says: "RA is a conversation, and the library is the place that fosters that conversation."

Claire Cameron, The Bear

Claire Cameron, a Canadian author, read from her current book The Bear, and talked about her sources and her writing process. She was a wonderful speaker and reader. I must confess that I began reading The Bear about a month ago, and put it down, feeling it wasn't for me. But after hearing Cameron read, I'm going to give the book a second chance.

The inspiration for The Bear was an actual bear attack that took place in Ontario's Algonquin Park in 1991. It was a very unusual attack that gave rise to a great deal of publicity: a healthy bear attacked and killed two people. The bear was not threatened, he was not starving - the couple was cooking dinner and the bear left the package of ground beef untouched. What's more, the couple were experienced campers who did everything right. It appears that the bear went out of its way to hunt and kill people.

Using this event as a jumping-off point, Cameron imagines the story from the point of view of a five-year-old girl, hiding with her younger brother - their father manages to hide them in a camping stove while trying to fend off the bear - then surviving in the woods, alone. (There were no children in the actual incident.) The story itself is gripping and suspenseful, and ultimately hopeful. Readers I speak to in the library are recommending it highly.

Cameron had a great deal of experience as a hiker, climber, canoer, and adventurer before becoming a writer. One of her best stories at RA in a Day was about her return to Algonquin Park, with her two sons, after the publication of The Bear. If you're intrigued, there's a good profile of her here.)

Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read and Cover

The final speaker of the day approaches the reading experience from an entirely different perspective. Peter Mendelsund is a book designer and art director for Alfred A. Knopf Publishers in New York. Check out the very impressive catalogue of book covers he has designed: Mendelsund.

Mendelsund has just published two books simultaneously: a coffee-table retrospective of his work, called Cover, and a meditation on what the experience of reading feels like, called What We See When We Read.

Mendelsund's talk was a departure and a great end to the day. A fast-talking, witty, literate New Yorker, he jolted us alert after a long, slow afternoon. Most of us love book covers, and Mendelsund's talk was a fascinating peek into the process of their creation.

In response to a question, Mendelsund mentioned that his least favourite projects are usually books expected to be very popular, where authors have earned huge advances. In those cases, there are a lot of stakeholders, high expectations, sales pressure, and many opinions to contend with... and thus much less creative control.

On the other hand, Mendelsund's favourite projects are usually classics that are being reprinted. The author is dead, the publishing house has little investment, and he gets to do pretty much whatever he wants. These books are often being published in a series, an authors' complete work, for which Mendelsund designs an overall concept, then variations for each book. With a slide show, he walked us through the process of designing this series of the work of Franz Kafka. Also, check out his designs for James Joyce, especially that most inspired Ulysses.

Mendelsund's references were more literary than those of most public library workers. He was name-dropping Melville, Joyce, Dostoyevsky, and Foucault, and I suspect that went over the heads of many people in the room. But his famous cover design of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo probably made up for it.

A final note about Peter Mendelsund. He mentioned that his first career was as a concert pianist. (His parents were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, and playing classical music increased one's chance of survival.) After decades as a musician, now with a family, he needed to change careers to have a more stable income and health insurance. That's not uncommon, especially in New York. But how many people buy a book on how to become a graphic designer, create a portfolio, and leap into a job as a book designer at a major publishing house? Those are some impressive talents at work, and not only the artistic kind.


garth hudson returns to big pink

This week, Columbia Records released The Basement Tapes Complete, six CDs of music made by Bob Dylan and The Band at the house they lived in - the legendary Big Pink - in West Saugerties, New York, during the summer of 1967.

Although The Band, and Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan and The Band, are among my favourite musical artists in the world - and although I love The Basement Tapes (a double-album from 1975) - I greet this announcement with only mild interest. I'll be excited to hear any actual new material, but different versions of already-recorded songs are never that interesting to me.

My lack of interest baffles my bootleg-loving partner, who is over the moon about this release. For more information about The Basement Tapes Complete, you might see Allan's non-baseball blog, currently called Sharp Pencil.

I did, however, love this video from Rolling Stone, documenting Garth Hudson's return to Big Pink for the first time in almost 50 years.

Not only does that house represent some of my most favourite music in the world, it is situated in an area filled with so many important memories for me. This is the Catskills region of New York State - "upstate," in local parlance. We never had a cottage or even a summer rental, but we went upstate with our dogs every summer - first a long weekend in a motel, then a week in a cabin, and eventually a rented house. The whole area is flush with memories for me, including some that are poignant, such as scattering some of the ashes of our beloved dogs Gypsy and Clyde, before we left for Canada. Somehow seeing the video of the drive to that house brought back a flood of memories.

A long time ago, when this blog was just getting going - back when I used one-word titles for every post - I wrote about our experiences upstate, just to preserve it in writing somewhere.


towards a cruelty-free face: switching to products not tested on animals

I've begun changing my personal care products to cruelty-free: natural products from companies that are better for the environment and don't test on animals. I'm not sure how far I'll be able to go, but I've begun the process.

After a lifetime of using conventional products, I was moved to think more about this by a few different sources.

When I worked in the children's library, I often saw a book about animal cruelty. It was not the one I wrote about here, about dogs, but a book in a series called "Tough Issues," similar to the kind of series I used to contribute to. This "tough issue" asked the question, "Why do people harm animals?" It's a good book, one that successfully treads that very careful line separating honesty from the overly graphic. Even so, there was one image that burned in my brain. (I know this image would have been highly disturbing to me as a child. Considering I saw the image in a children's book, this is very bad.) And now that image from that book joins the panolpy of disturbing images that I will never be able to un-see.

Another source: I belong to the Humane Society International (or HSI Canada), and their excellent advocacy against animal testing has influenced me.

The rational case for using animals in medical research has ended: as one prominent researcher says, "Whatever you discover, you will have to re-discover using people, so not only do the animals suffer using these experiments, the first few patients using these novel treatments will suffer, too." Using animals to test cosmetics and personal-care products shouldn't even be controversial. It is absolutely cruel and unnecessary.
Eliminating animal testing of cosmetics is entirely feasible. In the past three decades scientists have developed many advanced alternatives to animal testing—methods that use human blood, cell lines, artificial skin or computer models to test the safety of products. And many multinational companies have embraced these alternative test methods, reducing and in some cases eliminating their dependence on animal testing. As a result, they cut costs and save time; animal testing is expensive, slow and, because animals are not people, not always predictive.

The movement to eliminate animal testing extends beyond the cosmetics industry. In 2007 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report recommending that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fundamentally change the way chemicals are tested for human health risks. Through a greater reliance on in vitro testing, researchers could evaluate the effects of chemicals on biological processes while using very few animals. Scientists would generate better data and test a greater number of chemicals more quickly and cheaply.
And then there are microbeads. Perhaps I was the last person in North America to learn about microbeads, but the news finally reached me.
Tiny particles of plastic have been added to possibly thousands of personal care products sold around the world. These microbeads, hardly visible to the naked eye, flow straight from the bathroom drain into the sewer system. Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter out microbeads and that is the main reason why, ultimately, they contribute to the Plastic Soup swirling around the world’s oceans. Sea creatures absorb or eat microbeads. These microbeads are passed along the marine food chain. Since humans are ultimately at the top of this food chain, it is likely that we are also absorbing microbeads from the food we eat. Microbeads are not biodegradable and once they enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove.
Although I used products that contain microbeads, I never asked, "What are the scrubbing particles in this product made of?" Indeed, I never even thought of it. But now I have learned that a few products I buy regularly contain these tiny plastic particles that go straight to our water supply and into animals. And so, microbeads became the final kick in the pants I needed.

I looked into cruelty-free products on line, mostly at Leaping Bunny and GoCrueltyFree.org, but I was quickly overwhelmed. There are so many products... where to begin? Then I remembered my dictum from other changes I've made: away from all-or-nothing thinking. This cheered me up.

I decided to start with two products: face cleanser and scrub, since these are most likely to contain microbeads. This would also allow me to stop buying products made by Procter & Gamble, a name found on boycott lists for decades.

The next time I was in Whole Foods, I talked to the person in the "Whole Body" department. She showed me several alternatives. I decided on products by Green Beaver, a Canadian company with an interesting genesis.
As young scientists, Karen was a biochemist with experience in the pesticide industry and Alain was a microbiologist working for the pharmaceutical industry. We were both appalled by the amount of chemicals found in kid’s shampoos, bubble baths and other products. Given our background, we decided to do something about it. We quit our jobs and left the chemical industry behind to create healthier, natural products for your family and ours. We wanted to make a difference, and this is our story.
The scrubbing particles in Green Beaver's grapefruit and aloe scrub are made from bits of bamboo.

Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and others who have written about the horrors of the industrial food chain often note that the only way we can live with such a disgusting and inhumane system is by purposely not knowing about it - by willful collective ignorance. (This is the same ignorance collectively employed about capital punishment in the US, now unraveling thanks to activists forcing people to see.) We don't want to know where our cheeseburger comes from. We don't want to know about the feed lot, the gestation crate, the chicken prison, the killing floor. Or the lab prison.

Most people want to avoid thinking about cruelty to animals. We don't want to know about it. We especially don't want to know that we're complicit in it! And our closed eyes allow it to continue.