12.29.2016

tala

We must say goodbye to our sweet Tala today. At the vet yesterday, we got the worst possible news, and we know we must do this right away. I'm grateful that it's a clear decision.

Tala, Tala Bobala, Talabo, T-bo, T. Skinny Face. Princess Tala. My Little Girl.

She started life in a puppy mill in Tennessee. She was rescued to Ohio, then to Husky Savers in Western New York State. Then finally to Canada -- on the underground railroad to freedom. We fell in love with her on Petfinder and have been that way ever since, now one month shy of 10 years.

Talabo. Spinning wildly in circles, a white blur. Patroling the perimeter of her yard to keep us safe from the evil squirrels. Barking and spinning in the car, nonstop. Barking until someone would finally spray her with a hose, hopefully until she was soaked. Staring at the hose, waiting for someone to spray her, or perhaps trying to will the hose to spray her.

At the sound of the word "upstairs," even in casual conversation not directed at her, getting up and walking upstairs to go in her crate. Eating bees. Live bees, buzzing around in her mouth before she swallowed and caught another.

In her younger days, picking on small dogs at the dog park. If they would turn around and give her what-for, she was happy to let them chase her. If they cowered, she bullied them until we could finally distract her.

Mostly nice to other dogs, always sweet to humans, especially children. When we first brought Tala home, Cody hated her, but Tala didn't care, she kept trying to get Cody to play with her, until Cody finally gave in. Tala, best friend to Diego from the moment they met.

Degenerative disc disease or cauda equina syndrome forced us to change her life. She adapted without complaint. Not once, but two or three times, when we had to re-boot her rehab from the beginning. In May 2016 she had a soft tissue sarcoma. We had it removed and she was quickly back to herself.

White, soft, fluffy, with magic self-cleaning fur that repelled water and never looked dirty. ("How do you keep her so clean?" People would ask me all the time.)

Goodbye, my little girl. We will love you forever.








After diagnosis

Rehab



Cherry Beach

Waiting... hoping...

Waiting for a neighbour to spray her.






After one of the wmtc parties.

After her surgery this past May.


This will always be my favourite picture of her.

The picture on Petfinder.
L: "Where is Churchville, New York?"
A: "I don't know, but wherever it is, we're going."






Gypsy, November 28, 1987 - November 12, 1998
Clyde, October 21, 1989 - August 4, 1999
Cody, April 19, 1999 - August 24, 2010
Buster, December 14, 1999 - November 16, 2005
Tala, January 29, 2007 - December 29, 2016
Diego, April 26, 2011

12.27.2016

down these mean streets: raymond chandler's "the simple art of murder"

Netflix has added many older movies to its library, including several classics and modern classics. Among them I noticed "Mean Streets," the 1973 film that put both Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on the map. I always thought Scorsese took the film's name from Piri Thomas' autobiography, Down These Mean Streets. Thomas' work is a landmark of urban and prison literature, and was highly influential. What I didn't know was that both Thomas and Scorsese borrowed their titles from a common source: an essay by Raymond Chandler, published in 1950, called "The Simple Art of Murder".

The essay is a gem. Chandler analyzes and critiques the murder mystery novel -- its formula, its artifice, its unreality. He refutes the idea that the murder mystery or detective novel cannot also be well crafted piece of art -- and he goes one step further, dismissing the false division between "quality" literature and "escapist" fiction. I loved this part, and agree with it entirely.
In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: "It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a "literature of escape" and not "a literature of expression." I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers. Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth; he apparently -- one can never be quite sure -- is perfectly content hanging upside down on a branch, and not even reading Walter Lippmann. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.
Chandler then goes on to explain what he thinks Sayers was really poking at, which leads him to extol one detective writer above all: Dashiell Hammett.

It's a brilliant essay, so beautifully crafted. It shares a certain voice with the George Orwell essays that I love so much -- authoritative, but generous and warm; erudite but easy to follow, with just a hint of wry humour. Reading this essay reminded me that I know Chandler's work only from the film adaptations of his novels; I've never read any of his books. Sadly, the same is true about Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, although I love both film noir and hard-boiled detective films and series. Time to remedy that. I'm going to read at least a couple of books by each.

The penultimate paragraph of "The Simple Art of Murder" brings us the mean streets of both titles, and a soaring ode to the hard-boiled detective himself.
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.
A Farewell to Piri Thomas, One-time Criminal Who Became A Youth and Peace Advocate, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (2011)

Roger Ebert on Scorsese's "Mean Streets" (2003)

Writers in Hollywood: Raymond Chandler, The Atlantic (1945)


12.26.2016

travel safety in egypt vs anywhere else in the world

When I tell people I'm going to Egypt, they are happy and excited for me. Then, almost everyone asks me if it's safe there, and says, "Be careful." The recent incident in Berlin has caused me to reflect on why this is.

First: I am not complaining about friends expressing concern for my safety. I know that they are coming from a place of care and concern.

But they are also coming from a place of fear. The media has conditioned us to think of the Middle East as inherently unstable and unsafe. Add to that the violence during and after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, and western fears that US-backed dictator Mubarak would be replaced with a fundamentalist theocracy.

In Canada, there's also another layer: what I observe as a prevalent Canadian attitude about travel safety. To my mind, many Canadians are inordinately worried about safety when travelling. They are often timid about the world, risk-averse, people who value safety over adventure, and the known world over exploration. The majority of Canadians like their travel pre-packaged, predictable, and tame. As with all generalizations, exceptions abound, but I observe this on a regular basis.

The Canadian media stokes fears of travel, with sensational reporting on crime against vacationing Canadians, especially in Mexico. From what I can glean from news stories, some of this violence seems to be directed at tourists in heavily touristed areas. This CBC story sought to put the incidents in perspective, but CBC is among the worst offenders of sensationalist scare-stories about Mexico.

When my friends urge me to "be careful" in Egypt, I think there must be some measure of Islamophobia involved. I don't think it's conscious -- but I really don't know. We're traveling to "the Muslim world" or "the Arab world," as people say. To many people, that equates with danger.

When I traveled to Europe, no one expressed concerns for my safety, despite bombings in Paris, Madrid, and London in the not-distant past -- to say nothing of the murder rate in the United States. Yet Egypt is the only destination that has earned all the "be careful"s.

It's not that I haven't thought about the risk of going to Egypt and Jordan. I've been looking into the relative safety of this trip, off and on, for a few years. I came to the conclusion that for tourism, Egypt is safe enough. I assessed the risk as best I could -- and also assessed our age, financial situation, and the timing of this trip in our lives -- and decided now was the time. (I'm also hoping that we'll take advantage of tourism to Egypt still being depressed, encountering smaller crowds and better ease of travel.)

We flew to Ireland exactly two months after September 11, 2001, and just hours after a flight leaving from the same airport crashed and burned just after take-off. We could see the lights of the emergency crews from the runway. That felt a lot riskier than the trip we're planning now. And of course, the worst thing that ever happened to me happened while I was home, sleeping in my own bed.

In terms of specific trip planning, we did make a few concessions to safety. We've ruled out a few sites that seem too far off the beaten track, which in another place and time we might have trekked to. We were considering the Siwa Oasis, but it entails a long bus ride through the desert, and the oasis itself is right near the border with Libya. We're skipping things like that.

The way I look at it, there are risks everywhere. Life is risk. We risk life every day. The most important thing is to try to live life as fully and as meaningfully as possible.

12.08.2016

librarians: celebrate human rights at your library #Write4Rights

December 10 is International Human Rights Day. The date commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the first global human rights document.

Every year on December 10, Amnesty International Canada holds Write For Rights. All over the country, Canadians use our own human rights to support people who don’t have them. We write letters in support of prisoners of conscience, and letters to prisoners to let them know they have not been forgotten. It’s a powerful experience, and very easy to do.

This year I will be writing letters, and I've invited our library system to join me. Library staff are always looking for display ideas. I compiled a list of materials, sent it out to all staff, and suggested a human rights themed display. Several people were interested, and I sent them each a poster template and Write For Rights bookmarks that I got from Amnesty.

If you create library displays, I invite you to try this! You can share photos of your displays on social media with the hashtag #Write4Rights. Here's my display, and my list.






Nonfiction
Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacob
A Woman Among Warlords, Malala Joya
Chasing the Flame, Samantha Power
Dead Man Walking, Helen Prejean
Infamy, Richard Reeves
Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
I Shall Not Hate, Izzeldin Abuelaish
A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah
Shake Hands with the Devil, Romeo Dallaire
Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
An Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King
The Dark Side, Jane Mayer

Fiction
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden
Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Little Bee, Chris Cleave
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, Gil Courtemanche
Room, Emma Donoghue
Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Ford, Jamie Ford
Secret Daughter, Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson
The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill
The Illegal, Lawrence Hill
A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
The Known World, Edward Jones
The Cellist of Sarajevo, Annette Keen
The Afterlife of Stars, Joseph Kertes
The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
Prairie Ostrich, Tamai Kobayashi
To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Fall on Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels
A Mercy, Toni Morrison
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Lives of Girls and Women, Alice Munroe
Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
Ru, Kim Thúy
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
Mosquito, Roma Terme
Dogs at the Perimeter, Madeleine Thien
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese
Native Son, Richard Wright
The Book Thief, Marcus Zusack
The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card

Youth Fiction
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Little Brother, Cory Doctorow
The Giver, Lois Lowry

Documentary films
Devil's Knot
The Central Park Five
Waltz with Bashir

Movies
Amistad
The Book Thief
The Giver
Hotel Rwanda
Made In Dagenham
Pride
Selma
12 Years a Slave

Graphic Nonfiction
War Is Boring, David Axe
Martin Luther King, Michael Teitelbaum
Army of God, David Axe
Snowden, Ted Rall
Woman Rebel, Peter Bagge
The Imitation Game, Jim Ottaviani
Anne Frank, Sidney Jacobson
Maus, Art Spiegelman
Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, Harvey Pekar
Louis Riel, Chester Brown

I'm sure everyone reading this can think of more titles. My list was limited to what can be found in our library system. I hope it inspires you to add some of your own. And to Write For Rights on December 10.

12.06.2016

on a language adventure with mango languages

We are going to Egypt!

We're super excited about it. It's someplace we've always wanted to go. In fact, it's the only country that Allan has always wanted to see. (We went to my number one spot -- Peru -- in 2006.) Just after New Year's, we celebrate our anniversary, and we always go away for the 5s and 10s*. I thought for number 30 we should go someplace really special! The trip is in February.

In preparation, I'm learning some Egyptian Arabic, using Mango Languages, which I can access at no cost through my library card. I'm really enjoying it.

Here's why I love Mango.
- It breaks up the lessons into bite-size pieces, which makes the process less daunting.
- You hear the language spoken by native speakers.
- You can record yourself speaking, then play your words simultaneously with Mango's, to hear a real-time comparison.
- Mango teaches language concepts, rather than just rote phrases. For example, in the lesson that included I speak, I learned how to say the verb when speaking to a man and when speaking to a woman. (In Egyptian Arabic, the verb changes with the referent [who is being addressed], as well as with the speaker.) Then, in a later lesson that included I understand, Mango asked if I could figure out how to say this when addressing a woman. And to my amazement, I could!
- Every lesson begins with a review of the previous lesson, and every chapter (four lessons) ends with a review.
- It gives you cultural notes for the language you're learning. Not only does this make it easier to learn, it gives you context, which helps prepare you for the culture you're going to experience.
- For some languages, it includes other language needs, such as legal and even texting.

This reviewer for PC Mag found Mango's content "tedious". Perhaps that is something I'll encounter in later, more advanced lessons, but at this point I don't share that criticism.

The review also faults Mango for not teaching the scripts in languages that use non-Roman characters. For me, this is a plus. If I were also trying to read Arabic as well as speak it, I would be completely intimidated. Every lesson does include the script; you click or tap for transliteration. But it seems to me that learning to read a language is very different than learning to speak it, and I'm happy to skip that for now. (Linguist and translator friends, what do you think about that?)

The reviewer also criticizes Mango for not including grading, but I don't see this as a drawback. I do not want to be graded!

My only criticism of Mango is not relevant to my present learning, but very important. Many people want to use Mango to improve their English speaking skills. Mango offers English instruction in many different languages, but none of the South Asian languages are included. In Mississauga, this is a serious drawback, as many of our customers who want to improve their English speak one or more of Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, and Gujarati. I know the library has given this feedback to Mango. I hope they can soon add these languages to their roster.

I've also heard good things about Duolingo, another free language-learning app. However, Duolingo's list of languages is much more limited, and does not include Arabic.

Needless to say, I'll be posting a daily account of our adventures in Egypt. Stay tuned.

* Charleston, South Carolina; Bermuda; New Hope, Pennsylvania (reprise of our first trip together); The Ice Hotel; Quebec City and Montreal.

there is a major design flaw in the new blogger interface

Blogger has rolled out a redesigned dashboard. For those of us who write or manage blogs with comment moderation, it is decidedly not an upgrade. And for those of us who manage multiple blogs with comment moderation, it downright sucks.

Unfortunately I can't illustrate this post; I didn't know my dashboard was going to change, so I didn't screenshot the old one.

Previously, when I went to Blogger, which I have set as one of my home pages, I would see -- on the same screen -- all the blogs I manage. In one glance, with zero clicks, I could see if any comments were "awaiting moderation," as Blogger calls it, on all blogs.

Now when I go to Blogger, I see only one blog at a time. First I have to choose a blog. Then I have to click comments, awaiting moderation to see if there are any comments. Then choose another blog, click comments, awaiting moderation, and so on.

I did notice that when I return to the page, it has remained on the comments field, kind of like a default view, so that's not as bad as it could be.

However, many people manage multiple blogs. A dashboard that allows us to monitor activity on all blogs at the same time is very helpful. If Google will not scrap this new interface, I wish it would allow us to go back to the previous version.

11.30.2016

before the flood: good information but ultimately a weak message

Tonight we watched "Before the Flood", Leonardo DiCaprio's film about climate change, which I had heard such good things about.

It's well done, and is chock full of appropriately terrifying and depressing information. But in the end, the film delivers yet another "it's up to each of us" message, focusing on individual actions, rather than systemic solutions.

Early in the film, we hear that discussions of climate change used to focus on individual solutions -- change your light bulbs, bring your own coffee mug -- but now we know that's not enough. Yet in the end, the film concludes: "Consume differently: what you buy, what you eat, how you get your power." Vote for people who promise to do something.

After seeing miles of gray, dead coral reef, rainforest devastation in Indonesia, and the monstrosity of the tar sands, "consume differently" is an empty platitude. And how you get your power? Most of us have no choice about that.

Sure, eat less meat, carry your own coffee mug, take public transit, if the option exists in your area. You'll create less landfill, you'll make more conscious choices, and you might inspire others to do the same. Just don't think that you're making a dent in climate change. A dent? Not even a scratch.

"Before the Flood" might actually produce the opposite of its intended effect. Upon seeing this film, I think many or most viewers would feel that climate change is so huge, so widespread, and so advanced, that there is nothing we can do, so we should just live our lives, and try not to think about it. The optimistic NASA scientist interviewed towards the end of the film says that if we all stopped using fossil fuel, the earth will be able to heal. So if the impossible happens, we'll be OK? Not a lot of hope there.

Tar sands, fracking, palm oil production, deepwater drilling -- all of this is driven by profit and an economic system that demands so-called growth. In other words, the root cause is capitalism. It will never be more profitable to conserve and protect than it is to extract and destroy. So until our world is motivated by something other than profit, the destruction will not end.

The one thing that may achieve our goal is barely mentioned: massive, sustained protest. The kind of protest we are seeing right now in North Dakota, on a much larger scale. Because, as Mario Savio said, there is a time.
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!


I thought of Mario Savio tonight. Although my heart and soul are against the gears, and always have been, I cannot say that I put my body upon the gears. I can only say I support the people who do, and I am ready to do so when the time comes.

11.29.2016

fidel castro, 1926-2016

More than any ruler I can think of, Fidel Castro defies our insistence on seeing leaders as solely either good or evil. As this excellent assessment in Social Worker (UK) puts it, "History must judge him both as the freedom fighter whose defiance humiliated US imperialism and as the ruler of a repressive, unequal society."

Castro was an inspiration to freedom fighters the world over, including Nelson Mandela. Mandela, we should remember, was formerly branded as a communist terrorist, and later lionized as a cuddly hero, without having changed his tactics or beliefs.

I'm told that coverage of Castro's death by US-based media focused on the celebrations of Miami's Cuban exile community, which is exactly what I'd expect. Remember the images of Arab children celebrating the 9/11 attacks -- images that turned out to be several years old?

I don't doubt that wealthy Cubans, whose unchallenged power and prestige was toppled by a socialist revolution, despise the man who brought them down. But the mainstream US's enduring hatred for Castro has nothing to do with sympathies for the Cuban ruling class. Castro is the world leader who the US couldn't assassinate, couldn't buy off, and couldn't control. Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende, Mohammad Mossadegh, Jacobo Arbenz, Ho Chi Minh, Joao Goulart, Juan Bosch, Jean Bertrand Aristide -- if you don't know the names, look them up. You can go back as far as Queen Liliuokalani. Castro was the one that got away.

Castro was also a dictator. Cuba suppressed dissidents, segregated and brutally punished LGBT people, and had virtually no free speech. Saying "So-and-so did that, too!" is not an appropriate response. For a socialist to rationalize oppression because it originated on the left is shameful and indefensible.

At the same time, this is still true.


The best eulogy of Fidel Castro that I've seen was written by the great Eduard Galeano, in his 2010 book Mirrors. Here's an excerpt, courtesy of Raiot.
His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity. And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like Granma, no Frenchman would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo. And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices. And in that his enemies are right.

But some things his enemies do not say: it was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders’ bullets,
he faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane,
he survived 637 attempts on his life,
his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony,
and it was not by Lucifer’s curse or God’s miracle that the new country managed to outlive 10 U.S. presidents, their napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.

And his enemies never mention that Cuba is one rare country that does not compete for the World Doormat Cup.

And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what it managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and wider thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.

And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.

And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of its people, and also of the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castile.

11.12.2016

what i'm reading: welcome to the goddamn ice cube

Canadians might be disappointed to learn that Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North is not about Canada.

We sometimes refer to Canada as the Great White North, but the Canada that most Canadians inhabit has little in common with the stark landscapes that author Blair Braverman called home. In the northernmost reaches of Norway or on an Alaskan glacier, these are lands of stark conditions -- brutal cold, perpetual darkness, and little in the way of creature comforts. They are also places of great natural beauty. Often, too, a rough world with very few women, where sexual violence always hovers as a possibility.

Braverman grew up romanticizing The North and craved it as her proving ground. She seized some opportunities and created others, to test herself in the The North that she dreamt of.

In Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, we travel with Braverman to a tiny village in the north of Norway, where she works to fit in with an insular and unwelcoming local culture, to a Norwegian folk school where she learns to dogsled and survive under extreme conditions, and to a glacier in Alaska (the "ice cube" of the title), where she works as a tour guide and dogsledder.

These adventures alone would make an interesting and entertaining book. Braverman's clear, sparkling prose makes a fast and easy read. But Braverman brings another layer to her adventure story: the treatment she encounters as a young woman in a hyper-masculine world.

As an exchange student, Braverman is bullied, demeaned, sexually menaced, and finally assaulted by the father of her Norwegian host family. Frightened and without support, Braverman takes the all too common route: she blames herself. Then she takes that blame and self-doubt, and an ever-present (and not unfounded) fear of sexual violence, with her on her northern journeys.

Braverman blends these threads into a coming-of-age memoir, a travelogue, and an adventure tale.

I love dogsledding and the North from afar, so I was in awe -- and more than a little envy -- of Braverman's adventures. Her descriptions of driving a dogsled through a blizzard whiteout, or taking care of tourists stranded on the glacier, are true page-turners. At the same time, her descriptions of her dogs, and her love for them, bubble with honesty and enthusiasm. Her reflections on her relationships -- with a boyfriend who bullies her, with an elderly shopkeeper who becomes her chosen family, and finally, with a true partner -- are insightful and articulate. Braverman has a great ability to bring out one or two sparkling details that paint a vivid picture, without slowing the pace or getting bogged down in dense descriptions.

I had only one criticism of this book. The narrative jumps between different times and places. In general this would be fine, but with flashbacks and flash-forwards within flashbacks, I was often unable to follow the sequence of events. Was this before or after Alaska? Is this a subsequent trip to Norway or the same one? I couldn't piece together the timeline.

That's a flaw, but not a deal-breaker by any means. I just stayed in the present and didn't worry what happened when. By the time Braverman is ready to mentally and emotionally graduate from the tests she has chosen for herself, I was cheering for her all the way. And I hope it's not a spoiler to say the book has a poignant and very happy ending.

president trump: what didn't just happen

Since I'm making an effort to put more of my thoughts here, I'm gathering up a bunch of my Facebook posts and responses. If we know each other on Facebook, apologies for the repetition.

I find much of the analysis and commentary I've seen about the recent US election to be quite strange. Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. That happened. Here's what didn't happen.

1. "The United States is a democracy. The people chose Trump, end of story."

60,467,601 US voters chose Hillary Clinton.

60,072,551 US voters chose Donald Trump.

More than 100,000,000 Americans eligible to vote did not vote.

More than 5 million Americans cannot vote because they are either incarcerated or have been incarcerated, and thus have been disenfranchised.

There has been rampant voter suppression and vote fraud in both the primaries and the general election.

The United States is also a democracy if you close your eyes and stop up your ears.

Some views on winning the vote but losing the election from: The Guardian, The Independent, and The Atlantic.

2. "If only it had been Bernie!"

Bernie Sanders was never, for one moment, going to be the Democrat nominee. He was not leading a revolution, he was not even leading a movement. If he wanted to do those things, he would not have been running as a Democrat, and he would not have voted in line with the Democrats 98% of the time during his Congressional career. His role in the race was to bring in the left-of-liberal vote and that's what he did.

However, if Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, where would he have gotten more votes than Clinton? In Vermont, and possibly in New York and California -- i.e., states that went to the Democrats anyway. Because of the electoral college and the winner-take-all state-by-state system, recent presidential elections come down to a small number of swing states. I see no evidence that a more progressive candidate would have succeeded where Clinton failed in key swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina.

"If only it had been Bernie" assumes that a sizeable number of voters with strong progressive values opted to stay home in large numbers, rather than vote either Democrat or for a third-party candidate. This is possible, but not likely. Voters progressive enough to vote for Sanders likely would have voted to stop Trump.

"If only it had been Bernie" posits that a Jewish socialist born in New York City, a long-time representative of the liberal state of Vermont, would have carried the key swing states. Let's just say this strains credulity and leave it at that.

I do want, have always wanted, a progressive candidate to take on the Republicans, someone who actually offers a different vision of the country's future. By running as a Democrat, endorsing Clinton, and urging his supporters to vote for Clinton, Sanders demonstrated that he was not that candidate and never was.

3. Hillary Clinton is a good, strong, liberal woman of the people, and she deserved to win. She lost because of sexism and misogyny.

There's plenty of misogyny to go around, but the sexism smokescreen isn't big enough to hide Hillary Clinton's monstrous record.

Thomas Frank, writing in The Guardian:
She was the Democratic candidate because it was her turn and because a Clinton victory would have moved every Democrat in Washington up a notch. Whether or not she would win was always a secondary matter, something that was taken for granted. . . . And so Democratic leaders made Hillary their candidate even though they knew about her closeness to the banks, her fondness for war, and her unique vulnerability on the trade issue – each of which Trump exploited to the fullest. . . .

To try to put over such a nominee while screaming that the Republican is a rightwing monster is to court disbelief. If Trump is a fascist, as liberals often said, Democrats should have put in their strongest player to stop him, not a party hack they'd chosen because it was her turn. Choosing her indicated either that Democrats didn't mean what they said about Trump’s riskiness, that their opportunism took precedence over the country's well-being, or maybe both. . . .

Clinton’s supporters among the media didn’t help much, either. It always struck me as strange that such an unpopular candidate enjoyed such robust and unanimous endorsements from the editorial and opinion pages of the nation’s papers, but it was the quality of the media’s enthusiasm that really harmed her. With the same arguments repeated over and over, two or three times a day, with nuance and contrary views all deleted, the act of opening the newspaper started to feel like tuning in to a Cold War propaganda station. Here’s what it consisted of:
- Hillary was virtually without flaws. She was a peerless leader clad in saintly white, a super-lawyer, a caring benefactor of women and children, a warrior for social justice.
- Her scandals weren’t real.
- The economy was doing well / America was already great.
- Working-class people weren’t supporting Trump.
- And if they were, it was only because they were botched humans. Racism was the only conceivable reason for lining up with the Republican candidate. (See original for links.)

The even larger problem is that there is a kind of chronic complacency that has been rotting American liberalism for years, a hubris that tells Democrats they need do nothing different, they need deliver nothing really to anyone – except their friends on the Google jet and those nice people at Goldman. The rest of us are treated as though we have nowhere else to go and no role to play except to vote enthusiastically on the grounds that these Democrats are the "last thing standing" between us and the end of the world. It is a liberalism of the rich, it has failed the middle class, and now it has failed on its own terms of electability.
Jeffrey St. Clair, Counterpunch:
The DNC spent more time conspiring to defeat Bernie Sanders, than they did the Republicans. They absorbed nothing from the Sanders campaign, from the issues that resonated with his followers: a corrupt system fueled by corporate cash and militarism, working class people demeaned and ridiculed, the American youth burdened by debt with no opportunity for advancement, blacks and Hispanics treated as political chattel, captives to a party that demands their loyalty yet does nothing for them. The Clinton team vanquished Sanders, paid him off and then marched on arrogantly toward their doom.

Clinton herself showed a singular lack of courage to the very end of her campaign. She couldn't even speak out against the brutalization of tribal people in North Dakota defending their water and burial grounds against the mercenaries of Big Oil. How could anyone look at her silence in the face of those ongoing atrocities and believe that she'd ever stand up for them?
Robert Scheer, Truth Dig:
What you have is a defeat of elitism. Clinton's arrogance was on full display with the revelation of her speeches cozying up to Goldman Sachs—the bank that caused this misery more than any other—and the irony of this is not lost on the people who are hurting and can't pay their bills.
4. People voted for Donald Trump because they are racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and ignorant.

Many Americans are indeed all of those things, and obviously Donald Trump appealed to voters on that level. But Trump was able to fashion those beliefs into a campaign because of the Democrats' abandonment of the American working class.

Sorry to Godwin here, but remember how we all learned how post-WWI Germany was in the throes of a gargantuan economic crisis, and that Hitler was able to blame all that on the Jews, by tapping into a hatred that was already there? Does this not ring a bell?

Do not underestimate the economic crisis in the United States. People are not just unemployed -- they are without hope. No party has been willing to change the laws that allowed corporations to move operations to countries without environmental and labour protections, with an ocean of cheap, surplus labour, and to pay no taxes while doing so. The election finance system ensures that any attempt to change this would result in political suicide. So what used to be the middle class tries to scrape by on sales commissions, retail and fast-food, and what used to be the working class is just plain poor.

For decades Americans have seen their prospects for a decent life evaporate, and the Democrats, once considered the party of the working class, did nothing but help that happen, caring more about its corporate masters than ordinary voters. The white working class was primed ready to see their bigotry legitimized, and their suffering answered with scapegoating. It's much easier to point a finger at "those people" than to do the hard work of rebuilding the manufacturing sector.

Donald Trump didn't invent that ugly stew of bigotry. We all know that. But the Democrats' abandonment of the working class created the anger and frustration, and the vacuum of hope, that paved the way for Trump.

People are suffering. They have been suffering a long time. The Democrats have been ignoring their suffering. And now they -- and the American people -- have paid a very high price.

Joshua Frank, Counterpunch:
...no matter what bullshit excuse Democrats come up with for Hillary's historic embarrassment, they have only themselves to blame. She lost because she deserved to lose. She ran an awful campaign, mired in controversy, and was unable to excite voters to the polls. She believed neoliberalism could carry the day, but she was wrong. The DNC was wrong. The establishment lost because the establishment deserved its fate.

By no means does this imply Trump will overthrow the status quo, it only means the outsider Trump was better able to exploit the boiling rage of middle America. All the workers who were undercut by Bill Clinton's NAFTA. The hundreds of thousands that never rebounded from the Bush recession. Trump provided an outlet of hope for these lost souls – a fabricated hope no doubt, but hope nonetheless – gift wrapped in rage. His mastery of social media, of vindictive and racist rhetoric, helped him gut the provincial electorate.
Richard Moser, Counterpunch:
The Democrats were oblivious to the deep discontent among the American people because that simply does not figure into their clever and cunning calculations. Why should it? Fear, lesser of two evils, scapegoating, palace politics — all these things worked in the past, didn't they?

So all the discontent and unhappiness from years of economic distress fed right into the only other choice. We have the "great two party system" don't we? Both Democrats and Republicans insist there is no alternative. ...

The Democrats run a candidate who spent eight years in the White House, crow about her experience, even when the experience included the fact that Bill Clinton was IMPEACHED and widely viewed as a bum. The Democrats embrace a family dynasty the includes one of the two presidents in all of American history impeached by the House of Representatives. Good choice!

This has to be one of the most amazing proofs that the Democratic Party echo chamber is truly deafening.
Robert Scheer again:
The people Hillary Clinton derided as a “basket of deplorables” have spoken. They have voted out of the pain of their economic misfortune, which Clinton’s branch of the Democratic Party helped engender.

. . . It’s a repudiation of the arrogant elitism of the Democratic Party machine as represented by the Clintons, whose radical deregulation of Wall Street created this mess. And instead of recognizing the error of their ways and standing up to the banks, Clinton’s campaign cozied up to them, and that did not give people who are hurting confidence that she would respond to their needs or that she gave a damn about their suffering. She’s terminally tone-deaf.

So too were the mainstream media, which treated the wreckage of the Great Recession as a minor inconvenience, ignoring the deep suffering of the many millions who lost their homes, savings and jobs. The candidate of Goldman Sachs was defeated, unfortunately by a billionaire exemplar of everything that’s evil in late-stage capitalism, who will now worsen instead of fix the system. Thanks to the arrogance of the Democratic Party leadership that stifled the Sanders revolution, we are entering a very dangerous period with a Trump presidency, and this will be a time to see whether our system of checks and balances functions as our Founding Fathers intended

Make no mistake about it: This is a crisis of confidence for America’s ruling elite that far surpasses Nixon’s Watergate scandal. They were the enablers of radical deregulation that betrayed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s contract with the American people in the wake of the Great Depression. The people are hurting, and regrettably, Trump was the only vehicle presented to them by either major party in the general election to register their deepest discontent. The Trump voters are the messenger; don’t demonize them in an effort to salvage the prestige of the superrich elite that has temporarily lost its grip on the main levers of power in this nation.

Thankfully, the Clinton era is over, and the sick notion that the Democratic Party of FDR needed to find a new home in the temples of Wall Street greed has been rudely shattered by the deep anger of the very folks that the Democrats had presumed to represent. That includes working-class women, who failed to respond to the siren song of Clinton, whom the Democratic hacks offered instead of a true progressive like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Yes, we need a female president, but not in the mold of Margaret Thatcher.
Scheer, I should note, believes that Sanders would have defeated Trump in a progressive populist versus neofascist populist showdown. If Sanders was not actually a Democrat, I might have believed that, too.

Michael Laxer, The Left Chapter, "The wages of liberalism is Trump":
Much of the worst damage actually happened under Democrats. It should never be forgotten that it was Bill Clinton who helped to destroy the American liberal post-war state. Nor the role the Clinton Presidency played in the passing of sweeping and deeply racist crime bills that imprisoned and also disenfranchised millions of people-of-colour in the United States. . . . .

It was bizarre, as so many apologists for Clinton and the Democrats did, to go on about the alleged achievements of "incrementalism" or Democratic governance when it is easy to prove that the United States has gone dramatically to the right in every meaningful economic sense and when inequality is greater than it has been since the 1920s.

This did not change in any real way at all under Obama, a fact that is easily demonstrated.

Liberals and social democrats have failed workers and people living in poverty so spectacularly that it is impossible to overstate the extent.

This is a day-to-day lived reality for staggering numbers of people and telling those who might well be inclined to support something that rejects what has happened around them that your candidate and party are singularly qualified to stay the course due to their experience over this time in having done so, was both typically liberal and the worst form of political folly. It was a blind and bizarre self-defeating arrogance, that was profoundly, truly, madly, deeply foolhardy in its timing.
(Thanks to Allan for collecting these.)

5. We know what lies ahead.

In fact, we don't. This may have been merely an upset in the polls. Or it may be a sea change in US politics. I don't know what's coming and neither do you. That's why we're all so afraid.

11.11.2016

11.11

Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.



Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
.

11.09.2016

a dark and frightening day

I've spent the past several months reassuring my co-workers and baldly stating on Facebook that Donald Trump would not become President of the United States.

The lesson for me and for many of us: never underestimate what angry, alienated people can be led to do. The racism, hatred, and violence that is always present in the United States, decades of hopelessness and downward mobility that have gone completely unaddressed, and a demagogue fearmonger unafraid to pander to the lowest strains of American life: and here we are.

It would appear the system is less rigged than I thought. I thought the corporatocracy that controls the US would not allow this to happen. I thought Trump's presence on the right -- a huge boon to Democrats by shutting down left-of-liberal resistance -- would also drive moderate Republicans to vote Democrat. If either of these scenarios came into play, they were not of sufficient magnitude to overcome the popular discontent and desperation.

I fervently hate the Democrats and would not have voted for Clinton (and it wouldn't have mattered if I had), but the Democrats are a known quantity. I know what they do. They make war on foreign nations, they deport immigrants and refugees, they superficially (and sometimes meaningfully) support reproductive rights and LGBT rights. They are moderately liberal on social issues, and far-right on both military and economic issues. They are a party of cats, and I expect nothing for the mouse beyond the occasional crumb.

Trump, however, is an unknown. No one knows how far this will go, and whether enough resistance can be mounted against it.

10.29.2016

what i'm reading: the underground railroad by colson whitehead

Colson Whitehead is a literary genius. In The Underground Railroad, he has found a way to tell the story of 400-plus years of African-American oppression without delivering an awkward march through history, and without using characters as billboards for ideas.

Instead of linear time, Whitehead employs a geography of time: different eras, different historical moments, occur simultaneously but in different places, all the locations connected by an underground railroad.

At one stop is something very like the Tuskegee Experiment and the "Mississippi appendectomy". At another stop, minstrel shows, the mania of genocidal lynching, and the realities of Fugitive Slave Act. At another, the vision of Greenwood, Oklahoma and other all-black triumphs like it, and the spectre of its demise.

These simultaneous realities are linked, not by the Underground Railroad of myth and metaphor, but an underground railroad. As every reviewer of this book has pointed out, Whitehead imagines an actual railroad, at once a clandestine mode of transport, and a symbol of the subterranean struggle for freedom and justice.

Through his invented geography, Whitehead comes as close to the heart of the horror of slavery and its many legacies as anything I've ever read. The physical truth, the emotional truth, the psychological truth -- all are laid bare, revealing the United States' foundation of stolen land, human chattel, and brutal subjugation, and how that has played out over decades and centuries.

Whitehead doesn't sanitize slavery, but neither is this book a catalogue of grotesque violence. There's violence enough -- Whitehead doesn't flinch from it -- but he doesn't force the reader into torture porn, as graphically violent books often do.

To call The Underground Railroad historical fiction would be to diminish it. Whitehead is the consummate genre-shifter, never writing the same type of book twice; actually never writing a "type" at all. The Underground Railroad comprises elements of historical fiction, slave narratives, immigration stories, westerns, alternative histories, and magical realism. There's bits of Gulliver's Travels, of The Odyssey, of The Inferno. This review in The New York Times references one I hadn't thought of.
Throughout my reading, I was repeatedly reminded of a particular chapter from García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” to whose handling of time Whitehead seems to owe quite a bit. In that chapter, the infamous massacre of the banana plantation workers is denied by the official versions of history and soon forgotten. But one character knows what he saw — thousands of dead traveling toward the sea on a train — and goes around trying to find someone who will remember the story. He doesn’t: People always get things wrong. In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.
In reviews and interviews, much has been made of Whitehead's imaginative invention of an actual underground railroad, but what sets this book apart is not fantasy. Whitehead uses this magical element to confront the reality of American slavery, inviting us to consider it anew. In The Globe and Mail, Andray Domise writes:
But other misunderstandings, stubborn and pernicious, have managed to warp much of white America’s perception of slavery – that it was a matter of wage theft, that slaves were mostly treated and fed well by benevolent masters, that the Irish were treated in a similar fashion to black people. Whitehead’s novel is both speculative fiction and an inversion of these comforting fables. One in which the United States’ crimes against the Black body are revealed and compressed into the narrative of a young woman’s escape from bondage.
The Underground Railroad is a powerful and beautifully written book. Of course it's deeply disturbing, but I hope that doesn't dissuade readers from picking it up. In this age when blatantly false histories spread virally, this is a book that needs to be read.

Also, it's Colson Whitehead. Here I am again, raving about another book by Colson Whitehead. Here are my posts on: Sag Harbor, Zone One, Apex Hides the Hurt, and John Henry Days. Turns out I didn't review Colossus of New York, I only quoted from it: here and here (this blog was two days old at the time). And I read his first novel, The Intuitionist before this blog existed.

10.24.2016

i look forward to the day when no one wears a fitbit anymore

What did people do before Fitbit? Without their adorable little bracelets, how did they get enough exercise? Never mind that, how did they manage to live?? All those lonely, barren years, decade upon decade, people running, swimming, cycling, lifting, walking -- without a Fitbit. Can you imagine? It breaks my heart just thinking about it.

Pre-Fitbit, I often didn't know if people were exercising at all! Imagine! I might be speaking to someone who was getting enough exercise, and I wouldn't even know it! Unless the subject came up, I wouldn't know how many steps they had walked that day! What a scary thought.

10.23.2016

what i'm reading: born to run by bruce springsteen

This is a run-don't-walk review. Fans of Bruce Springsteen: run to find a copy of The Boss' memoirs, Born to Run. This book was seven years in the making, and (like Chrissie Hynde's and Patti Smith's memoirs) written by the artist himself. It is by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching, poignant and gripping, and always profoundly insightful and a joy to read.

Springsteen is an intellectual -- a man of great intelligence who, for better and worse, lives in his own head, analyzing and at times over-analyzing the world around him and his own reactions to it. Because of this, he brings a powerful self-awareness to his life story -- an ability to articulate where his art comes from, and how his personal pitfalls have affected the most important relationships in his life.

Born to Run is also noteworthy for what it is not. It's not a tell-all or an exposé; readers looking for dirt will be disappointed. Springsteen protects his closest friends from exposure, and when it comes to blame, usually points the finger only at the man in the mirror. If there are personal disagreements, they remain personal: Steve and I had some issues to work out, so we sat down and had an honest talk, and moved past them is a typical approach. Even about his first manager Mike Appel, whose one-sided contracts hobbled Springsteen for years, and whose idol was the infamous "Colonel" Tom Parker, controller of Elvis Presley, Springsteen is measured, compassionate, and forgiving, professing a deep affection for him. The story is honest and revealing -- what was in those contracts, why Springsteen signed them -- but there is no anger or blame.

Born to Run is also not a memoir of a fast life through the great trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Springsteen was 22 years old when he had his first drink of alcohol, and has never used recreational drugs. He mentions the rocker's on-the-road sex life, but only obliquely, to let the reader know it existed, and was then outgrown. That leaves rock and roll, and plenty of it.

In the musicians' memoirs that I've read, the most exciting writing has been their recollection of their moment of discovery. Keith Richards, Patti Smith, and Chrissie Hynde were all able to articulate how music -- literally -- changed their lives, how the discovery of a certain music at a certain time altered their chosen path forever. Springsteen can also pinpoint those moments, and his great self-insight and writing talents make it fairly leap from the page into the reader's heart.

Springsteen's writing style itself is deeply evocative. Sometimes his writing takes off on a flight of fancy.
Conditions were generally horrific, but compared to what?! The dumpiest motel on the road was a step up from my home digs. I was twenty-three and I was making a living playing music! Friends, there's a reason they don't call it "working," it's called PLAYING! I've left enough sweat on stages around the world to fill at least one of the seven seas; I've driven myself and my band to the limit and over the edge for more than forty years. We continue to do so, but it's still "playing". It's a life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege every night. You can sing about your misery, the world's misery, your most devastating experiences, but there is something in the gathering of souls that blows the blues away.
Other times, there's a sparkling turn of phrase: "He had the shortest highway between his fingers and his heart I'd ever heard". Or a metaphor that brings the truth home.
We'd navigated the treacherous part of the river, the part Mike and I couldn't make, where the current changes and the landscape will never be the same. So, breaking into the open I looked behind me in our boat and I still had my Clark. Up front, he still had Lewis. We still had our own musical country to chart, many miles of frontier to travel, and music to make.
I have been a diehard Bruce Springsteen fan since my teenage years, one of the millions who grew up in the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia area who feel a special kinship with Springsteen and a special ownership of his music. I've been amazed and thrilled that his music has matured along with his fans. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I wondered if the latter half of Born to Run might be a let-down. The story of how a working-class New Jersey boy discovered his talents and navigated the treacherous waters to rise to fame -- that's a gripping tale. But how that now-famous musician lives the rest of his life -- is that going to be interesting, too?

Yes. Emphatically yes. In the second half of Born to Run, Springsteen explores his ongoing relationship with his parents, his struggles to free himself from the patterns of his father, and the struggles, challenges, and joys of learning how to parent. The E Street Band broke up, then reformed, and two of the original members died. There's a long, restorative motorcycle journey through the American desert, and a cross-country road trip of self-discovery. There are fascinating details about Springsteen's writing process. There is poetry in all of it.

Throughout, Springsteen is honest about his struggles with anxiety and depression. He relates the roots of his own issues to those of his father's, whose mental illness, like so many from his generation, was undiagnosed and untreated. Interestingly, Springsteen never says "mental health" or "mental illness" -- simply illness. I thought that was a very interesting and positive choice -- making no distinction between mind and body. Springsteen writes about how he found relief, from both talk therapy and medication, pulling no punches: these drugs saved his life.

Fans may also be interested in the companion CD, Chapter and Verse, which chronicles the music written about in the book, and includes five previously unreleased songs.

I'll close this already-long review with a telling passage that speaks to the style and depth of Born to Run.
I learned many a rough lesson from my father. The rigidity and blue-collar narcissism of "manhood" 1950’s style. An inner yearning for isolation, for the world on your terms or not at all. A deep attraction to silence, secrets and secretiveness. The distorted idea that the beautiful things in your life, the love you struggled so hard to win, will turn and possess you, robbing you of your imagined hard-fought-for freedoms. The hard blues of constant disaffection. The rituals of the barroom. A misogyny grown from the fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives, crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing inside you is barely contained. You use it to intimidate those you love. And of course . . . the disappearing act; you’re there but not there, not really present; inaccessibility, its pleasures and its discontents. All leading ultimately to the black seductive fantasy of a wreck of a life, the maddening boil lanced, the masks dropped and the long endless free fall into the chasm that at certain moments can smell so sweet from a distance. Of course, once you stop romanticizing it, more likely you're just another chaos-sowing schmuck on the block, sacrificing your treasured family's trust to your "issues." You're a dime a dozen in every burb across America. I can't lay it all at my pop's feet; plenty of it is my own weakness and inability at this late date to put it all away, my favorite harpies, the ones I count on to return to flit and nibble around the edges of my beautiful reward. Through hard work and Patti's great love I have overcome much of this, though not all of it. I have days when my boundaries wobble, my darkness and the blues seem to beckon and I seek to medicate myself in whatever way I can. But on my best days, I can freely enjoy the slow passing of time, the tenderness that is my life; I can feel the love I'm a part of surrounding me and flowing through me; I am near home and I am standing hand in hand with those I love, past and present, in the sun, on the outskirts of something that feels, almost . . . like being free.

10.15.2016

it is designed to break your heart

In between my infrequent posts, the Red Sox's postseason came and went. As Basil Fawlty says, blink and you missed it.

It was a strange baseball season for Sox fans. In late June, it looked like another lost cause, and I drifted away, preferring binge-watching on Netflix to sitting through loss after loss. Then suddenly it all looked so possible. Boston got hot, Baltimore faded away. Forget about the wild card, we wrapped up the division with a tidy four-game margin.

Then October comes, and the September Red Sox are nowhere to be found, the team back to its anemic June version. sigh

The Sox's oh-for-three showing in the American League Division Series had me thinking a lot about the particular joys and heartbreaks of the game itself.

Game 2 was a blow-out. Boston didn't show up, and there wasn't much suspense.

But Games 1 and 3 were both close, and in baseball close games mean suspense, frustration, and missed opportunities. Game 3 was especially suspenseful, since it was an elimination game, win or go home. The suspense, the missed opportunities -- every runner left on base, every scorched line-drive into a Cleveland glove -- got me thinking.

Baseball is full of quiet space. The reason some people find it slow and boring is the same reason fans find it exciting. (Also the reason many serious fans despise the constant noise and fake entertainment at the ballpark.) Those built-in quiet spaces frame the game into a series of distinct moments. Action-pause, action-pause, action-pause. And each of those moments holds the potential for joy -- and its opposite.

Depending on the situation, that potential could be perfectly ordinary, or unbearably suspenseful. Will the pitcher preserve the no-hitter? Will that soaring ball clear the fence? Will the runner make it to the plate before the tag? Each time the pitcher goes into his wind-up, each time the batter takes his stance -- we wait -- we wait -- in our mind's eye, we see what we want to happen, imagining it as if we could will it to happen -- comeon-comeon-comeon -- knowing we have been in this position countless times before, the memories of every crazy, impossible, joyous comeback gathering in our minds -- until we feel ready to explode with joy, and then -- celebration or frustration. We cheer. Or more likely, We sigh. We curse. We groan. The whole ballpark lets loose a collective groan, and the millions of fans watching at home groan with them.

And then the whole thing begins again.

No other sport that I know of contains this kind of constant tension and suspense. The sports with more action -- soccer, basketball, hockey -- don't allow for it. The ball or the puck is moving too quickly. The moments of tension and suspense may be numerous, but they are fleeting. In baseball, where the action appears to stop, is the peak of tension, where we hold our collective breath.

And of course the action only appears to stop, to the untrained eye. That's another thing about baseball: the individual contests being fought nearly constantly within the team sport.

Other sports have defense guarding offense, and there's the lone hockey goalie versus everyone. These are in some sense individual-within-team. But pitcher versus batter is a game onto itself. The pitcher's arsenal, the count, the number of outs, the number of runners on base and which bases, the batter's strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies, the lineup, the defensive shifts -- all this and more is happening with every pitch. Not nothing is happening -- everything is happening.

So there we are, ALDS Game 3. Bottom of the sixth, Red Sox down 4-1. Runners on second and third, and only one out! Tying run at the plate! David Ortiz! Storybook ending? Comeon-comeon-comeon... No.

Bottom eight. Runners on first and second, two out, Xander Bogaerts smacks a bullet... right into a glove.

We're still breathing, not dead yet, but first our pitchers have to hold the score, each pitch an agony of suspense as we collectively will the Cleveland batters to do nothing. Finally three outs, we breathe, allow ourselves a millisecond to relax, then here we go again, our season in the balance, David Ortiz's final season in the balance.

Bottom nine, two on, two outs, here comes our storybook ending, we just know it, another chapter in the book called David Ortiz Greatest Clutch Hitter Ever -- comeon-comeon-comeon -- and our season ends.

Every at-bat, the potential for celebration or disappointment, for joy or heartbreak.

A much better writer said it best.
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.

war resister ryan johnson needs our help

Our friend Ryan Johnson, a war resister, is now in military prison.

Ryan and his partner Jenna Johnson lived in Canada for more than 11 years. After running out of court challenges, and exhausted from living in limbo for more than a decade, the Johnsons returned to California, and Ryan turned himself in.

Ryan was court martialed, sentenced to 10 months in military prison, and given a bad-conduct discharge. His "crime": refusing to deploy to Iraq, refusing to participate in an illegal invasion of a country that had done no wrong to the United States. His crime: choosing peace.

Ryan and Jenna are some of the best people I know: strong, brave, principled, kind, funny, sweet, caring. They sometimes dog-sat for us, and I never felt safer than when my pups were in their care. They both come from modest, working-class backgrounds. They have loving family, but very few material resources. They need our help.

Donations made through Courage to Resist are tax-deductible for US citizens. The money raised will mean Jenna can visit Ryan in prison, Ryan can buy phone cards to speak to Jen and his other family, and Jennifer can get needed medical care.

You can donate here.

You can read more about the Johnsons' situation here.

thank you, david ortiz!



















Thank you and goodbye.