know your rights, rental edition, part two

Just about one year ago today - July 8, 2013, to be exact - our area was hit with a massive flood that swamped homes, cars, highways, trains, and . . . our basement. The basement had been Allan's office. The office in which he was working to meet a publishing deadline. Stressful? You could say that.

It could have been much worse. We got an insurance settlement, and we moved - not without some hassles, but we did it, moving in to our current rental home in September.

Now, one year later, we mentioned to our current landlord that it's time to renew our lease. He said he'd come over for a visual inspection. That's his right, as he has only been on the property once since we moved in, when the dryer broke. (Interestingly, he questioned whether we had caused the breakdown through carelessness.) He also said there would be a "nominal" increase in rent.

We made a date, and he and his wife came to do a walk-through. Everything was fine, of course. A pot-light fixture has broken, and needs to be replaced. Mrs. Landlord implied that might have been our fault, just as Landlord had done with the dryer. I was puzzled, and assured her that the light bulb blew out in the normal manner, and when we tried to replace it, we discovered the broken fixture. They also saw the small garden that we had asked for permission to put in.

They said everything looks fine, and they would be happy to make a new lease. Then they said the rent would increase by $200 a month.

When I expressed some surprise, Landlord said he had much higher offers than what he was asking from us, but didn't take them because we're nice people.

I said, "Actually, you're not allowed to stop renting to us in order to get more money from new tenants."

He said, "Well, I could say I need the house back for my own use, but I won't do that. I do everything above-board."

One of the few legal grounds for a landlord to stop renting to a tenant in Ontario is if the Landlord or an immediate relative is moving into the house. So our "do everything above-board" guy is now telling us that he could lie and cheat in order to increase the rent even higher, but he won't.

Mr. Above-Board Landlord then requested that we pay the $200 increase in cash every month. Our 12 months of pre-dated cheques would be for the current rent, and the difference would be paid by cash, in an envelope.

I told him we don't mind paying cash, as long as the lease shows the full amount that we actually pay.

He said, no, he couldn't do that, as "that would defeat the purpose of the cash". Indeed.

I told him no, we would not pay one amount but get a receipt that says we pay a different amount. That would leave us unprotected if "anything happened". (To myself, I thought, What kind of idiots do you take us for? Did you really think we'd be that stupid?)

We didn't respond completely on the spot. The full import of a $200 rent hike hadn't sunk in yet. But once we started investigating, we learned that the current allowable rent increase in Ontario is 0.8%. In 2015, it will be 1.6%. $200 represents a 10.5% increase.

This applies to most units built before 1998. (Amazingly, for units built after 1998, there is no rent control. I could see a higher percentage, but none? I hear we have Mike Harris to thank for that.)

In addition, tenants must be informed of any rent increase in writing, with at least 90 days' notice.

If a landlord seeks to raise the rent more than the allowable rate, she or he must apply to the Landlord-Tenant Board for an exemption. Exemptions may be based on large-scale renovations or tax re-assessments, neither of which apply here.

A few calls to the City revealed that the house we rent was built in 1993.

We informed Mr. Above-Board of the current allowable rent increase, the notice period, and the requirement to inform us in writing.

Now the ball in his court.

I will not be at all surprised if he now informs us that a family member is moving in this house. I say: let him try it.

He has one son in university in Ottawa, another son who is 12 years old. This house has been a rental unit for many years. If Mr. A-BLL now produces a mystery relative who suddenly needs the house - after tenants balk at a 10.5% illegal rent increase - and after he tried to get that increase in cash, under the table - and after he said the property was fine and he was happy to renew our lease - it will look mighty suspicious. I'm thinking the Landlord-Tenant Board can see through that.

One interesting sidenote: had Mr. A-BLL asked for a $50 rent increase - still more than the legal allowable percentage - we probably would have paid it without question. It was only his greed that caused us to investigate and push back.

(And no, we're not sorry we rent. But we're also not planning on moving any time soon.)

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #14

One of our regular Readers' Den customers approached me with her usual long list of movies. She researches movies online, prints out lists, and comes to the desk to see what we have in our collection. Anything we have, we place on hold for her.

She's a great customer, in terms of library use. She has an intellectual disability, and sometimes helping her can be a bit of a challenge. 

This customer talks very fast, and a little too loudly. While you're searching for one item, she's rattling off the next few, so after placing each hold, you must ask her to repeat the next title. Because she's reading from a list, the effect is a constant stream of chatter, from which you must pick out the movie titles.

After we had exhausted her movie list, she asked, "Is there a way I can do this myself, put on holds, from home?"

I know she uses a computer to research movies, and I know she checks her library account online to see which holds are available. I told her, yes, definitely, she can do this from home, and I'll show her how right now. She made some self-deprecating remarks. It was apparent that the prospect of learning something new was stressful for her.

We went to one of the public catalogue computers. I asked her if she knew how to log in to her own account, and she did that with ease. I asked her to search for a movie title, and she did that. Then I showed her how to place the item on hold. We did that a few times, and then she started talking.

"Want to hear a really sad story?" she asked. On the radio, a woman was talking about her son, a teenager. "He's like me," the customer said. "He's slow." At school, instead of being in class, the boy was working in the cafeteria, and washing teachers' cars. His mother didn't know. He was afraid to tell her, fearing he would get in trouble for skipping class. None of the teachers came forward to tell the boy's parents. Another special-needs student told her parents, who told this woman. 

Her son was being used as a slave. He was being deprived of an education, and working, without pay. Pretty clear human rights violations. Teachers and school administrators allowed this to go on - later, of course, claiming ignorance.

The customer said, "I thought those days were over. When I was in school, they used to call us re-tards, they kept us in a special class, they didn't teach us anything, they thought, why bother to teach these re-tards. But I can learn. I can learn. It just takes me more time. My brother taught me to use a computer." Then she said, "I could teach this boy. I wish I knew him, I would teach him, I would show him that if I can learn, he can learn, too."

I was struggling to maintain some professional distance, to avoid tears. 

Later, I looked for the story online, but realized it was not necessarily recent. The customer might have heard this story anytime. Because she identified so strongly and felt so compassionately towards the boy in the story, the story remained fresh to her. 

I wondered, too, about her earlier self-disparaging remarks, wondered what had ingrained anxiety and fear so deeply that the mention of learning - anything - triggered that response. 

* * * *

Back at the information desk, I learned from a colleague that some staff find this customer somewhat annoying. I don't at all, and the colleague who shared this with me - who also loves movies and enjoys helping this customer - doesn't either. She reminded me that we all have our own irritations, different buttons that customers unknowingly push. 

I would like to take this more generous view of my co-workers... but I can't. Bias against people with disabilities is rampant. I feel so strongly about our library being accessible to as broad a range of people as possible, and I see how this customer needs us. Hearing that some staff dislike her raised my hackles.

I later wondered if perhaps the customer already knows how to place holds, and perhaps just wanted to extend our interaction. Or perhaps she knows how to search the catalogue but is still wary of taking another step. Either way, it's okay with me. That's what we're there for.


what i'm reading: dark age ahead by jane jacobs

Dark Age Ahead, by the late Jane Jacobs, contains some important insights about the state of North American society. For me, however, the book is more notable for what it doesn’t contain.

Picking up where Jared Diamond left off in Guns, Germs, and Steel (which Jacobs references several times in her introduction) and Collapse, Jacobs identifies five pillars of society that she believes are in decay: community and family, higher education, the effective practice of science and science-based technology, taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities, and self-policing by the learned professions.

To readers who are puzzled by her choices for the list itself, Jacobs writes:
It may seem surprising that I do not single out such failings as racism, profligate environmental destruction, crime, voters' distrust of politicians and thus low turnouts for elections, and the enlarging gulf between rich and poor along with the attrition of the middle class. Why not those five, rather than the five I have selected to concentrate on? . . . Perhaps my judgment is wrong, but I think these second five are symptoms of breakdown in the five I have chosen to discuss. Furthermore, many North Americans are already aware of them as dangerous and are trying to focus on intelligent corrections.
I disagree with this judgment – racism, for example, is not a symptom of any of Jacobs' five pillars, but a core issue of its own – but this is the list with which Dark Age Ahead grapples.

The book itself reads like an extended essay - unfocused and discursive. Whereas Diamond based his conclusions on facts and statistics, Jacobs draws on anecdotal evidence (often her own firsthand observations), plus some secondary sources (a few books). The claims are monumental, but the evidence often feels very flimsy.

In a chapter called "Dumbed-Down Taxes," Jacobs bemoans a lack of local control over tax distribution and expenditures. She mentions the public's increasing agitation over rising taxes, and the increasing distrust of federal and provincial governments. She mentions the de-funding and slashing of public services. However, Jacobs never mentions the sea change that stripped public coffers of funds, burdened the average taxpayer, and led to the decimating of so many public services: the decline in the corporate tax rate. Most corporations in the US pay zero taxes, and Canadian corporate tax rates – slashed by 50% by the late Finance Minister Jim Flaherty – are among the lowest in the world. On this subject, Jacobs is silent.

Similarly, in a chapter about a lack of self-policing by industry, Jacobs never mentions that government agencies originally formed as watchdogs are now largely headed by former industry lobbyists. If we want to know why policing and regulating doesn't work, it's odd to not even put this in the mix.

It should be difficult, too, to compare the society of the United States, and to a lesser but still very real extent, Canada, to the collapse of the Roman Empire and not reference the enormous tax burden of military expenditures.

To discuss redlining – the denial of investment to certain geographic areas – and never mention racism, when redlining is primarily a racist tool, is not just strange. It's incorrect.

To readers familiar with Jacobs' work, especially her 1961 masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Dark Age Ahead includes much familiar ground: Jacobs' hatred of all things auto-related, her critique of the suburbs as hollow and soulless (which I poke at here), and her leadership in community opposition to destruction by highway. All good stuff, all worth contemplating. Her assessment of what ails our society contains much worth reading. But it might be best approached as a jumping-off point, rather than a definitive work in itself.


in which i defend the suburbs against misconceptions (some thoughts on reading jane jacobs)

I'm reading Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs' 2004 strong caution to North American society. I'll blog about the book in general at a later date, but wanted to share some thoughts that keep coming up as I'm reading.

This is the first time I'm reading Jacobs since living in a suburb, the kind of area Jacobs reviled, rather than living in a dense urban environment, the kind she revered. And now, when I read Jacobs' shorthand descriptions of suburbs, I wonder if she truly understood them.

Two of the charges levelled against suburbs - and if you've read Jacobs or anyone influenced by her, you've encountered these repeatedly - are (1) no one knows their neighbours, and (2) you have to drive everywhere. The former refers to the absence of shared community spaces. Jacobs often wrote that we must encounter each other face-to-face in order to build tolerance and a sense of community. The latter criticism is often expressed as, "You have to drive [x] distance just to pick up a loaf of bread."

I think this reveals some misunderstanding about how most suburban people conduct their lives. Most suburbanites don't live in walking distance of a big supermarket, but that doesn't mean they drive to the store every time they need anything. Based on my observations, most people do all their shopping at once, bringing home groceries for a full week or more from one trip. In other words, just because they (supposedly) need to drive just to pick up bread, doesn't mean they do.

Urbanites may pick up small numbers of items every day, often on their way home from public transit. Many people shop for dinner on the way home from work. Many urbanites don't have the means to shop for a week's worth of food at one time, and may not have the space to stock up on staples. To those people, the absence of a variety of shops and services within easy walking distance looks incredibly inconvenient. But to suburbanites, shopping daily or several times a week may look similarly inconvenient.

I said "supposedly need to drive" for a reason. Most modern suburban neighbourhoods do have a small commercial strip with a few stores and services in walkable distance. However, these strips are often not visible from the main arteries. They're located inside the neighbourhood, so to speak, on smaller through-ways. So while it may appear that suburbanites must drive to pick up milk or bread, chances are (a) they buy milk or bread weekly, along with everything else they need, and (b) if they do need something in an emergency, they can walk to get it, or drive a very short distance, if necessary (recognizing that not everyone can walk carrying packages, in all weather).

Commercial strips aren't the only suburban feature not visible from the main roads. Many or most suburban neighbourhoods also contain green space, tucked within the neighbourhood itself. My Mississauga Library System colleagues who live in Toronto often claim that Mississauga lacks for green space - shared, outdoor, public commons. As commuters, they see Mississauga only from the main roadways. In fact, almost every neighbourhood in Mississauga has green space, inside the subdivision. And in those spaces, you'll see people walking their dogs, kids in playgrounds, teens on their bicycles, seniors out for a stroll, and so on.

As for knowing our neighbours, we do, to the extent that we want to - and that's exactly the extent we knew them in New York. Mississauga is more diverse than most of New York City, and in general it's more tolerant and less insular than any given New York City neighbourhood. But that, I think, is more a function of Canada and Mississauga, and the high value placed on newcomers and diversity in our area.

* * * *

I grew up in the suburbs (Rockland County, in lower New York State). It was before the existence of McMansions: my family had a small house and a huge yard. We owned two cars, and needed them both, and when we reached our teen years, we needed more than two. There was no local public transit, just buses to New York City. As children, we were completely dependent on adults driving us to do anything. We did have a lot of freedom to roam around the neighbourhood, but so did urban children in that era (and many still do).

The suburbs in which I grew up was very much like the ones that Jacobs loathed: isolating, and completely dependent on the automobile.

hated living in the suburbs, and vowed I would never choose to live in one as an adult. Never is a big word when you're young and have no idea the shape your life will take. But even a few years before we moved to Mississauga, I couldn't have envisioned being happy in the suburbs. I always thought if we left urban life, we would opt for a small town in a rural area. (Where, I should add, people are equally dependent on cars!)

And now, of course, I live in a suburb and I really enjoy it. Mississauga is technically a city - Canada's sixth-largest! - but it's an extremely suburban environment. The City of Mississauga has come a long way in adding public transit and in cultivating public spaces and excellent community services. But when it calls itself "urban," it's stretching that word beyond all meaning.

Many suburban and rural people disparage cities - cities are dirty, crowded, noisy, and so on. I usually sense that they've never lived in a city, so they see the negatives without understanding the positives. That is, they don't see the trade-off.

Think back to the woman I overheard on the plane, wondering with horror why her urban friend spends so much money to live in Brooklyn when she doesn't even have a backyard or a detached house. I've heard countless people similarly wonder why people pay such exorbitant rents to live in Manhattan. While there's no proper justification for the ridiculous housing costs, I would say that those people simply don't understand the trade-off: they don't understand what you get in return for those crazy housing prices. As E. B. White said, "...the city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin -- the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled." You pay those prices, live in those small apartments, put up with the crowds, because you thrive on urban life.

In a quieter and less spectacular way, the suburbs can also offer a rich trade-off. Naturally we need more and better public transit. That's a given. And suburbs must be more than places to live and shop. People need to be able to work, play, and create in their own communities. But Jacobs herself reminds us that smaller towns and cities all over the US were once equipped with trolley cars, linking communities internally and to each other, before North American society (thanks to General Motors) (this, too) abandoned public transit in favour of the automobile.

We need better planning, for sure - more density, more transit. But the suburbs themselves are not the problem.


charles barsotti, 1933-2014

Two obituary posts in a row, and I didn't even mention Tony Gwynn. My favourite cartoonist, Charles Barsotti, has died from cancer at the age of 80.

My favourite Barsotti character is, of course, The Pup.

The Pup often saw his therapist.

And sometimes lawyers were involved.

But Barsotti had a political side, too. This cartoon has pride of place on my desk, next to Mankoff's "...assuming the FBI is making copies."

Here's another great political cartoon.

I'm so pleased that I emailed with Charles Barsotti some years back, after ordering some goodies from his website. If you love someone's work, please let her or him know. You might imagine that successful artists or writers know how much we enjoy their work, but in my experience, people are so pleased to hear from fans.

Charles Barsotti's obituary in the New York Times and Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker, on Barsotti.


ruby dee, 1922-2014

Ruby Dee was a towering figure in the American theatre. She was a great actor, a poet, playwright, and screenwriter, and a steadfast voice for equality. Along with the actor Ossie Davis, her husband of nearly 60 years, Dee never stopped campaigning for full civil rights for all people.

Dee and Davis' marriage was something to marvel at and to emulate, a partnership, as the New York Times obit puts it, that was "romantic, familial, professional, artistic and political".

Dee grew up in Harlem, performed in many Broadway plays, and was a quintessential New Yorker. On Friday, the marquee lights on Broadway theatres were darkened for one minute in her honour.


wmtc: happy birthday to me

I have been alive and kicking on this planet for 53 years today. I'm pretty damn happy about it.

I'm celebrating my birthday by taking the day from work, reviewing my talk for this weekend's Marxism conference, getting caught up on some personal business, having a play date with Allan (also ditching work) and the pups, then tonight, having dinner at Kaji, my go-to place for birthday celebrations in recent years.

Then I can celebrate all weekend by engaging in discussion, education, and solidarity: Resisting a System in Crisis: Marxism 2014. This year I'm stewarding a room, and I was invited to participate on a panel for the first time: "Rebuilding our unions: a rank and file strategy". I'm very honoured to be speaking with two big-time labour activists!


why i'm voting liberal on june 12 and why i feel so crappy about it

Need it even be said? The rightward shift of the NDP is a colossal disappointment for me.

I'm part of the NDP's natural constituency. The NDP has historically been a social democrat party, a party of the working class, a party not tied to corporate interests. The existence of the NDP, a credible, viable party on the left, is part of what made Canada such an appealing choice for me.

Despite the right-leaning leadership of the NDP at both the provincial and federal levels, I still have hope for Canada. Every NDP voter I speak to, and everything I read, tells me that my disappointment is shared and echoed throughout the land. There is still hope that the NDP will reconstitute itself as a party on the left.

But not if we dutifully vote for them no matter what platform they put forth. When 34 prominent NDP supporters wrote to Andrea Horwath to express their disappointment, we got a glimpse of the NDP's future. They collapse at the polls, Horwath is turfed, and party is re-formed from the grassroots up.

The alternative is what liberal Democrat voters did in the US. In election after election, left-leaning Democrat voters believed they had to vote for the party under any and all circumstances, as the party gradually became almost indistinguishable from the Republicans in all but its rhetoric. The Democrats could take for granted the liberal (in the US sense) vote, so they continued to court the so-called swing vote... and you know the rest of the story. If I vote ONDP, I'm repeating that exercise.

Many of my leftist comrades see this very differently. In articles and analysis such as this, they argue against the Liberals, who instituted most of the Drummond austerity recommendations, and whose leader, Kathleen Wynne, voted in favour of then-Premier Dalton McGuinty's anti-union Bill 115. They argue in favour of supporting the only party not tied to corporate interests, the party that (theoretically) is tied to the working class.

I can't successfully relate the arguments in favour of voting for Horwath's ONDP, because they don't make a lot of sense to me. I understand everything that's wrong with the Liberals, that's why this has been such a difficult decision for me. But I can't see talking about class interests during an election. Elections are not about class interests. Elections are not a revolutionary tool; they are a small-c conservative tool. Elections are about squeezing the most reform we can out of an unjust system. Sometimes - not all the time, each situation is different - elections are about doing the least harm.

It's uncomfortable for me to say this, the more I read IS analysis of the provincial election, the more clarity I found on voting Liberal to vote anti-Hudak. The arguments in favour of voting NDP in this provincial election are, to me, theoretical gymnastics.

Tim Hudak will demolish public services, eliminate tens of thousands of good jobs, and make life harder for all of us. Kathleen Wynne's Liberals are clearly not my preference to govern this province. But I believe they will be less worse. And until we get rid of the first-past-the-post electoral system, this is what I'm stuck with.

In my riding, the NDP has no chance. But there's a very real chance of the riding going Conservative. I have to do my small part to prevent that. Then I have to hound the Liberal government day and night to keep them from doing the same things the Conservatives would have done.


memo to ruth graham: readers who try to shame other readers should be embarrassed by their narrow-mindedness

Ruth Graham, writing in Slate, says, "You should feel embarrassed when what you're reading was written for children." How sad. If anyone should feel embarrassed, it's Graham. She apparently writes this commentary without realizing how narrow-minded, outdated, and ignorant it makes her appear.

Then again, what can we expect from a person who describes a love scene by saying a young man "deflowers" his girlfriend? Perhaps Graham hasn't noticed, but in the 21st Century, women are not passive objects; their first sexual experience is not imagined as a loss of innocence and delicacy. Hazel, the hero of The Fault in our Stars, is not "deflowered". She chooses to have sex.

Graham mentions that it was "once unseemly" for adults to read young-adult lit. When was that, I wonder? I'm at least 10 years older than Graham, who places herself in the 30 to 44-year-old demographic. I've read young-adult fiction all my life, and I don't remember there ever being a negative connotation. She also lists Tuck Everlasting as a sophisticated book from her youth. Except Tuck Everlasting is a children's novel. An excellent book, but not to be confused with young-adult lit.

Graham says she didn't cry when she read The Fault in our Stars, and wonders if that makes her either heartless or "a grown up"? I answer both questions in the negative. Why would "saying 'Oh, brother' out loud more than once," make a reader more mature than a reader who cries? Is it childish to be deeply affected by reading? Is it mature to roll our eyes in cynical dismissal? I not only cried from The Fault in our Stars. I cried without shame.

"These books," Graham writes, "consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying..." And maybe that's the key to the proper response to Graham's essay. Anyone who thinks the endings of The Spectacular Now, Looking for Alaska, The Book Thief, or It's Kind of a Funny Story, to name a few, are satisfying and too simple is poorly equipped to analyze literature at all. I wonder, too, how Graham knows "what teenagers want to see", and which teens she's referring to. I spend quite a lot of time with teens, but I would hesitate to make such a sweeping statement about any people based solely on age.

Graham writes, "Life is so short, and the list of truly great books for adults is so long."

Here's my edit. Life is so short. Read whatever you like. And never, ever be embarrassed by your choices.

I quickly dashed off this post after Allan brought the story to my attention. More fully fleshed-out responses abound.

Really? Are we still genre-shaming people for the books they like? by Lauren Davis at io9

No, you do not have to be ashamed of reading young adult fiction in WaPo

In Praise of Reading Whatever You Want in New Republic

Slate’s Condescending “Against YA” Couldn’t Be More Wrong - Young Adult Fiction Is for Everyone in FlavorWire


for those who believe meat-eating can be ethical: in praise of beretta farms

I've mentioned Beretta Farms in many different posts over the years, but I've never specifically blogged about them. With grilling season underway, it's time to give Beretta a shout-out.

When I learned about the horrors of factory farming, first from reading Michael Pollan, and later through other sources, I knew I needed to change my eating habits. I needed to translate my knowledge into action, but I was at a loss for what to do.

In the 1990s, I had eaten a vegetarian (almost vegan) diet for more than two years, but it didn't work for me, and I gave it up. I certainly don't eat meat with every meal, but I learned that I do need animal protein for optimal function. But once the curtain had been lifted on the horrors of factory farming, I could no longer stand the thought of contributing to the industrial food chain, especially as it relates to animal abuse.

The first step was releasing myself from all-or-nothing thinking about food. We're not going to buy only ethically-raised meat or chicken. We can't afford it, and when we go out to eat, we (usually) can't choose the origin of our food. Despite this, we decided that we would try to replace conventional meat with ethically-raised meat to the extent possible.

Researching online, I found Beretta Farms. Beretta Farms is a real farms, run by the Beretta Family, who raise animals by traditional methods and sell meat locally, on a small scale. But Beretta Farms is also a network. For many family-owned, non-industrial farms, the greatest challenge to reaching consumers is distribution. By definition, non-factory farms cannot produce food in sufficient quantities to get their products stocked in major supermarket chains. And in most of North America, if your product does not appear in a chain supermarket, it's very difficult to scratch out a living. From a consumer point of view, you barely exist.

To resolve this issue, a "middle man" (is there no gender-neutral substitute for that word?) is needed, but that link must have equally high standards. For many small farms in this part of Southern Ontario, Beretta Farms is that middle man. [Update from comments: go-between or intermediary might do the job.]

Meat purchased from Beretta comes from animals who live like animals - cows that eat grass, on open pastures, chickens that walk around pecking the ground, pigs whose tails and teeth were not docked (a hideous practice), who were allowed to root around in the earth, and who lived decent pig lives. (We don't eat a lot of pork, by ohmygod you should taste Beretta's sausages!)

Some of the meat is certified organic, but even without the certification (which is out of reach of many small operations), the animals are raised by traditional methods. No feedlots, no antibiotics, no hormones. No cages, no inhumane crowding, no forcing bovines to eat corn. If these issues are not familiar to you, spend some time with Google. Information about Beretta's animal practices is here.

When we first found Beretta in 2008, buying their products was a bit of a production. They were only sold in two or three small stores in our area. The selection was minimal and sometimes, even though the meat was frozen, it was old. We used their delivery service, but the minimum order was very high, the prices were higher, and the delivery was a bit unreliable. On the other hand, their customer service was superb, and the meat was so good. And guilt-free.

Now, only a few years later, we see a wide range of Beretta products at our Whole Foods and a small selection at Loblaws. The prices have come down considerably; the meat is still more expensive than crappy industrial meat, but the price difference is less. And Beretta has a new, user-friendly website which makes ordering a snap. We like to place an order online then pick it up from their butcher shop in Etobicoke (near the airport).

By buying and enjoying Beretta Farm products we support small-scale, local agriculture, we eat healthier, more flavourful food, we contribute less to animal suffering, and we contribute less to environmental destruction.

I once overheard someone say she would only buy her meat from Highland Farms, a local food chain that boasts a huge meat case and butchers who will cut and trim meat to order. She said, "I have to know where my meat comes from!" I thought, how sad, and I wondered how many other consumers are fooled this way. Meat doesn't come from a supermarket. Just because meat is displayed without plastic wrap in the store, doesn't mean it is any safer than meat a rival chain displays in plastic. "100% Canadian" doesn't mean it doesn't come from a factory farm. And "corn fed" or "vegetarian fed" is deceptive advertising. When you see "corn fed," think feed lot.

To find the equivalent of Beretta Farms where you live, try the Eat Wild website, an excellent resource for anyone trying to reduce the level of industrial food in their lives.

what i'm reading: the book thief, an anti-war novel

I'm sure many of you have read The Book Thief, Markus Zusak's youth novel about a German girl and her (non-biological) family during World War II. If you haven't yet read it, I recommend it.

I had little interest in reading this book. I picked it up for professional reasons: it has been one of the most popular youth novels since its publication in 2005, and I intended to skim it, to get the gist. This book didn't care what I had in mind. The opening was so intriguing that I kept reading, and before long I was completely engrossed.

In our culture, there aren't many books or movies that contemplate World War II from a German point of view. By giving us the German people during the Nazi era - their suffering, and both their defiance and their complicity - Zusak humanizes war and suffering in a way that Holocaust stories - with humans on one side, and monsters on the other - cannot. As the beautifully drawn characters develop and the situations build - as the reader identifies with these people who happen to be German - Zusak builds a case about the futility of war.

The reader is forced to face an impossible truth. For ordinary German people, simply having an iota of compassion for a Jewish neighbour - simply being seen as less than brutal, or not completely loyal to the brutal regime - could destroy a person's livelihood and family. Trying to feed a starving Jew could result in torture or death, or leave one's family marked for the camps themselves.

Once the Nazis had reached a certain degree of power, there could be no real defiance. The Germans in The Book Thief can no more control Hitler than the American people could stop a former Resident of the White House from bombing Iraq.

18th Century philosopher Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". But once evil has triumphed, what can be done? In The Book Thief we see that open defiance is both impossible and futile. Acts of courage are actually rash stupidity. The only courage is in perseverance.

If this is true, how can we prevent genocide? How can we prevent fascism? The only answer seems to be: by never letting it get that far. By recognizing the earliest signs and resisting before it's too late.

Leisel Meminger, the main character of The Book Thief, could well be Anne Frank. She is a young girl, and she suffers trauma and sorrow, because she happens to live in a country where a genocidal madman rose to power. German parents cry with grief and terror as their sons are sent to the Russian front. Germans and Russians alike freeze and bleed to death there. When allied bombs fall on German towns, the people of those towns cower in terror, and they die or survive in the aftermath with grief and loss. They suffer no less because the bombs are dropped by "the good" side. And they suffer, with no control over Hitler's murderous reign. Canadians and Americans, take note. When bombs fall, it doesn't matter if they're dropped in the name of The Master Race or Humanitarian Intervention.

"45,000 people in one day," we read, died in the bombing of Munich. "And still Hitler held strong."
Not long before the sirens signaled the end, Alex Steiner - the man with the immovable, wooden face - coaxes the kids from his wife's legs. He was able to reach out and grapple for his son's free hand. Kurt, still stoic and full of stare, took it up and tightened his grip gently on the hand of his sister. Soon, everyone in the cellar was holding the hand of another, and the group of Germans stood in a lumpy circle. The cold hands melted into the warm ones, and in some cases, the feeling of another human pulse was transported. It came through the layers of pale, stiffened skin. Some of them closed their eyes, waiting for their final demise, or hoping for a sign that the raid was finally over.

Did they deserve any better, these people?
It was Russia, January 5, 1943, and just another icy day. Out among the city and snow, there were dead Russians and Germans everywhere. Those who remained were firing into the blank pages in front of them. Three languages interwove. The Russian, the bullets, the German.
Zusak manages a tremendous feat as he builds the reader's sympathies. The reader feels unquestionable compassion and sympathy for all the characters' pain; most of them are non-Jewish Germans. Yet he makes it abundantly clear who is suffering the most. Yet the fact that the Jewish people are suffering the most doesn't lessen the suffering of the non-Jewish Germans. Zusak offers this paradox for us to accept and not resolve.

The book's unusual construction, narrated by Death itself, softens the impact on the imagination. This is an almost benevolent Death, carrying away souls in his arms. Death is an end of suffering, a final peace. This prevents The Book Thief from being too explicit, for young and not-young readers alike.

The Book Thief is not only an anti-war book. It's a story of a young girl, a new kind of family, and of the bonds of friendship. It's the story of people - funny people, nasty people, kind people, helpless people - playing out their lives amid a larger context. It's a small, family story. But it is, most definitely, an anti-war novel.

I am fond of saying that All Quiet on the Western Front is the greatest anti-war novel of all time, showing as it does the horrific suffering of the ordinary soldier through the eyes of young German soldiers. The Book Thief joins my pantheon of great anti-war novels for similar reasons.

Nicholson Baker: Why I'm A Pacifist (downloadable pdf).

this year's garden-ette and sweet dogs in their small backyard

Here are some visuals for this post.

This year's crop, we hope: eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, basil, and thyme.

As you can see, it's a fraction of the backyard we used to have, and kind of bare. But it does the job! We're putting a canopy over the patio.

"Wither thou goest...". Diego is pledged to Tala. Wherever Tala is, the big boy is right beside her.  

This goes all the way back to when she was first rehabbing from her spine injury. Three years ago:

And today.


please speak out against horrific cruelty to dogs

A long time ago, I watched a PBS show about dogs. At the end, there was a short segment about the domestic canines' suffering from human maltreatment or neglect. That segment included a short piece on the trade in dog meat for human consumption. In one image, faraway and a bit blurred, I saw something I will never forget. The sickening image - living dogs had been stuffed into a cage like building blocks or pairs of socks - is burned into my brain.

Today I received email from HSI Canada that recalled that hideous image. In China, some people are preparing for the notorious Yulin Dog Meat Festival. Thousands of street dogs will be rounded up, and dogs will be stolen from homes. The animals will be held under the most horrific conditions, then beaten to death while other dogs watch.

Don't talk to me about cultural differences. That's how people once justified slavery. That's how people once justified (and in some communities, still do) men's supposed right to beat their wives, and parents' supposed right to abuse their children. Cruelty against animals, be it seal slaughter or fox hunting or bullfighting, is wrong. Surveys show that most Chinese people oppose the dog-meat trade anyway. Opposition to the Yulin Dog Meat Festival is organized locally by Vshine Animal Protection Group, a Chinese organization.

And please, don't talk to me about hypocrisy. I do my best to minimize my negative impact on animals. More importantly, cruelty is not an all-or-nothing proposition. If we can prevent some cruelty against sentient beings, we should.

Please join me in speaking out against the Yulin Dog Meat Festival. You can read more here and sign a petition here. (Warning: graphic photo on that page.)

I don't know if signing this petition will help. I know it can't hurt. And not signing it certainly won't help.


this year's garden and diego's new favourite food

Three years ago, we planted our first-ever garden, really a tiny garden-ette, growing two tomato plants and some daisies. (I had forgotten about the flowers til I saw that older post.)

I really enjoyed growing the vegetables, and was surprised and pleased to learn that it wasn't very time-consuming, at least not on this level. The following year we again planted tomatoes, but substituted herbs for the flowers. Much more fun! I was so taken with snipping fresh herbs from my garden that I cooked more often.

Last year's garden was a bust, thanks to the flood and our subsequent move.

This year, in our new place, we cleared a little patch and took a baby-step forward: four tomato plants, one eggplant plant (your highness, your highness), one zucchini plant, basil, and thyme. I'm hoping for grilled veggies this summer.

The very helpful person at Sheridan Nurseries recommended a natural plant-food made from chicken manure. Apparently chicken poo is rich is calcium and fruit-bearing plants love it. And guess what? So do dogs! Diego says, "Chicken manure?! Yum! More, please!"

Vegetable gardening is good for your health, good for your wallet, and good for the planet. For me, it's also a healthy psychological challenge, a step away from one of my most pernicious traps: all-or-nothing thinking. Doing something different, just a little bit, without judgment, without obsession, without perfectionism. Not "do your best," just do.

Photos and updates to follow!


"just because it's broken, doesn't mean it's not beautiful": ashlea brockway and brokenart mosaics

The Brockway family, 2013
I want to tell you about an exciting venture: an opportunity to help make art more accessible for all, to help a low-income woman start her own business, and to help the family of an Iraq War resister, all at the same time. I hope you'll read about BrokenArt Mosaics and share Ashlea Brockway's crowd-funding page.

Wmtc readers may remember my posts about the Brockway family. Jeremy Brockway is an Iraq War veteran with severe depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Denied medical leave and unable to return to combat, Jeremy and his family came to Canada. Wmtc and Joy of Sox helped raise funds for the Brockways to adopt a service dog. I've written about the Brockways several times: here, here, and here, among other posts.

You already know my feelings about war resisters and people who struggle with mental illness. But in my zeal to share those stories, I may have shortchanged the real hero of the Brockway story, the head of the family, Ashlea Brockway.

I admire Ashlea Brockway tremendously. Ashlea is raising three young children on her own, and also caring for her disabled husband, who cannot work, and who can help with the kids only in a very limited way. She is a patient, loving, meticulous mother. More than anything, though, Ashlea is a woman of action.

BrokenArt Mosaic magnet
Wherever she directs her energies, Ashlea is focused on others. I've never heard Ashlea speak about her husband's situation without raising awareness of the broader issue, the shameful way veterans are treated after military service. When she accessed the services of a local food bank, she became first a volunteer, and then an outspoken advocate for both the families who use social services and the workers who provide the services. Now Ashlea is using her own creative talents to make art and creativity more accessible for all.

Ashlea is starting her own art-focused business, called BrokenArt Mosaics. She recently told the Port Welland Tribune:
“Even though my life is not how I wanted it to be, it's still beautiful.”

That concept is mirrored in her mosaics, she says.

“Broken things most people throw away, but you can pick up the pieces and make something beautiful.”

Brockway first realized she had a passion for mosaics in high school and has since used the art form as a means of stress relief.

“It's therapeutic,” she says, calling it a challenge to try and find pieces that fit together harmoniously.
Grab a kit, make some art

It's a relaxing experience she wants to share with the community.

It's an activity people of all ages, with all levels of crafting experience, can take on, she says.

Brockway's focus is on ensuring her kits are accessible to people of all income levels.

“It's about making art accessible. Art is often out of the price range of everyday people.”

She not only sells kits but also plans to eventually host mosaic-making workshops.

Her long-term goal is to have a storefront to call her own.
Ashlea's BrokenArt mosaics are very reminiscent of Gaudi's trencadis mosaics that I fell in love with last year in Barcelona. Gaudi used shards of broken, discarded tiles, "upcycling" trash into art well ahead of the trend. Ashlea's art is all about searching the scrap heap to find the beauty within.

You can help fund Ashlea's venture through her GoFundMe campaign, and you can visit the BrokenArt Mosaic Facebook page. Whether or not you donate, I hope you will check out the site, and share it with your own network.


you can never have too much interspecies love

I'm working on a few actual posts, where I actually write something and you might actually read it. Until those materialize, please enjoy these fine examples of interspecies love.

First, the incredible story of Mr. G. and Jellybean.

Read more about it here. Bring a tissue.

Next, friendship is not just for funny little grass-eaters. Big carnivores have friends, too.

And finally, a beautiful German Shepherd and an adorable piglet are in love in BC. Slide show here.

Many thanks to Steph and Miss Essie Ash for sharing these!

(Can any code-friendly readers tell me why there is a huge space after that second embed?)