4.23.2017

what i'm reading: swing time by zadie smith

Zadie Smith is on my list of "authors I will follow anywhere". I may not love everything about every book she writes, but that's unimportant. For me, her books are always worth reading -- the writing is beautiful, the characters feel real, the insights into the human condition are interesting and thought-provoking and ring true. I'm always excited to hear Smith has published a new book, and Swing Time did not disappoint.

Smith is no minimalist. If you like your novels plot-driven, you might wonder, why did I just read so many words just to go from A to B? I do love and admire minimal writing -- such as Kent Haruf's -- but I also love the lavish, textured tapestry that Smith lays down. Her writing is rich in detail, but not overburdened.

Swing Time is narrated by a woman looking back at different times in her life. The story cuts back and forth among three narratives, as time passes and the narratives move closer together chronologically. I knew the three threads would come together, but I didn't know how -- and when they did, the movement was so seamless that I barely realized the anticipation was over.

There's a lot going on in this book. In terms of plot, there's the narrator (she is never named) as a child, with a stridently intellectual and political mother of Jamaican descent, who is all about "our people," but not so much the individual person who is her daughter, and a laid-back, white, working-class dad. And there's her best friend Tracey, with whom the narrator takes dance lessons and obsessively watches old movie musicals. Tracey is talented, dominant, and perhaps unstable -- a constant but shifting presence in the narrator's life.

There's the narrator as a young woman, trying on different versions of herself, and finally falling into a job as personal assistant to a globally famous pop star. Working for Aimee -- who is drawn along the lines of Madonna in her heyday or Beyonce, but is neither of those -- brings the narrator into a world where there is no boundary between life and work, and where an entire universe revolves around one person.

And there's the narrator in west Africa, where Aimee wants to build a school for girls, where the brown British narrator and the white Australian pop star are referred to equally as "the Americans," where an entire village sees less money in one year than what Aimee's entourage spends on coffee in a week.

In each thread, we meet characters who are fully imagined, real people, and who carve out their own way of being in the world, their own space on a complex matrix of wealth, class, colour, family, belief, resistance, accommodation, compassion, and self-interest.

And more. Music, dance -- friendship, ambition -- class, colour -- ancestry, history -- all manner of parenting -- fame, charity, poverty -- altruism, narcissism, celebrity worship -- self-awareness, self-absorption -- all is woven into Swing Time. Smith creates a world where everything is relative. Fame and wealth, talent and invisibility, ambition and purpose are all constantly in flux, and only exist in relation to everything else. Including -- especially -- race, class, and power. In the world of Swing Time, there are no absolutes.

For me, nothing ruins a novel faster than a lot of exposition. Don't break your narrative to explain things to me; don't use your characters as dictionaries or billboards. Smith does the opposite: nothing is explained. Places in London and New York, cultural references of working-class Brits, Muslim practises in Africa, historical references -- Smith throws it out there, and it's up to the reader to catch on, whether from context or Google. Some readers might find this frustrating, but it keeps the pace upbeat and the narrative voice true.

Swing Time is what is sometimes called a Bildungsroman, a kind of coming-of-age story of an adult. It is a riveting and richly rewarding read.

4.22.2017

what i'm reading: giovanni's room by james baldwin

James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, a landmark in LGBT literature, is one of our library's current "Raves & Faves". The 1956 novel takes place in Paris, narrated by a young American man who is trying to come to terms with his sexuality.

In the past, this was said to be a "gay novel;" now it is seen as "bisexual novel". Leaving aside the obvious fact that novels don't possess sexuality, those labels are interpretation. The narrator himself doesn't have a name for his orientation; for him, neutral, descriptive language doesn't exist.

The story takes place in 1950s Paris, alive with expatriates, in a male subculture that is an open secret. The men who frequent Guillaume's bar are more open than they can be in their hometowns and original cultures, but their lives are still lived largely underground.

Our narrator -- his name is David, but the name is seldom used -- tells the story during a momentous night, one of pain and shame, looking back on the events that led to that night. David is engaged to an American woman, and he desperately wants to fully embrace a conventional life with her. When he falls in love with an Italian bartender named Giovanni, he cannot simply turn away. They have a relationship, and it ends in tragedy.

More than anything, Giovanni's Room is about shame -- what happens to people when their identity, their entire concept of themselves, is considered wrong, dirty, and shameful. What happens to their relationships, what happens, if you will, to their souls.

An older man -- a "queen" and a pathetic person in David's eyes -- gives David this advice, and for me it sums up the meaning of the book.
I looked over at Giovanni, who now had one arm around the ruined-looking girl, who could have once been very beautiful but who never would be now.

Jacques followed my look. 'He is very fond of you,' he said, 'already. But this doesn't make you happy or proud, as it should. It makes you frightened and ashamed. Why?'

'I don't understand him,' I said at last. I don't know what his friendship means; I don't know what he means by friendship.'

Jacques laughed. 'You don't know what he means by friendship but you have the feeling it may not be safe. You are afraid it may change you. What kind of friendship have you had?'

I said nothing.

'Or for that matter,' he continued, 'what kind of love affairs?'

I was silent for so long that he teased me, saying, 'Come out, come out, wherever you are.'

And I grinned, feeling chilled.

'Love him,' said Jacques, with vehemence, 'love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last? Since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, hélas! in the dark. And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty — they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty; you can give each other something which will make both of you better — forever — if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.' He paused, watching me, and then looked down to his cognac. 'You play it safe long enough,' he said, in a different tone, 'and you'll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever — like me.'
David is tormented by an almost existential inner conflict. Giovanni, on the other hand, feels that David is exaggerating, almost fabricating his troubles. He feels David should be able to love and marry his fiancee, and love men at the same time.
'Well. You are a very charming and good-looking and civilized boy and, unless you are impotent, I do not see what she has to complain about, or what you have to worry about. To arrange, mon cher, la vie pratique, is very simple — it only has to be done.' He reflected. 'Sometimes things go wrong, I agree; then you have to arrange it another way. But it is certainly not the English melodrama you make it. Why, that way, life would simply be unbearable.'
David cannot conceive of this. He can only love Giovanni, and hate him for what he represents, and hate himself for loving this man that he both loves and hates.
Giovanni had awakened an itch, had released a gnaw in me. I realized it one afternoon, when I was taking him to work via the Boulevard Montparnasse. We had bought a kilo of cherries and we were eating them as we walked along. We were both insufferably childish and high-spirited that afternoon and the spectacle we presented, two grown men jostling each other on the wide sidewalk and aiming the cherry pits, as though they were spitballs, into each other's faces, must have been outrageous. And I realized that such childishness was fantastic at my age and the happiness out of which it sprang yet more so; for that moment I really loved Giovanni, who had never seemed more beautiful than he was that afternoon. And, watching his face, I realized that it meant much to me that I could make his face so bright. I saw that I might be willing to give a great deal not to lose that power. And I felt myself flow toward him, as a river rushes when the ice breaks up. Yet, at that very moment, there passed between us on the pavement another boy, a stranger, and I invested him at once with Giovanni's beauty and what I felt for Giovanni I also felt for him. Giovanni saw this and saw my face and it made him laugh the more. I blushed and he kept laughing and then the boulevard, the light, the sound of his laughter turned into a scene from a nightmare. I kept looking at the trees, the light falling through the leaves. I felt sorrow and shame and panic and great bitterness. At the same time — it was part of my turmoil and also outside it — I felt the muscles in my neck tighten with the effort I was making not to turn my head and watch that boy diminish down the bright avenue. The beast which Giovanni had awakened in me would never go to sleep again; but one day I would not be with Giovanni anymore. And would I then, like all the others, find myself turning and following all kinds of boys down God knows what dark avenues, into what dark places?

With this fearful intimation there opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.
Interestingly, this is Baldwin's only novel where all the characters are white. In the 1950s, writing about men loving men was already wildly controversial and taboo. Adding colour to the equation was impossible. In those days, any novel featuring African-Americans was by definition "about" being black in America -- "the Negro question," as it was then known. The only way to make this book "about" being gay or bisexual, was to keep all the characters white, so colour could not be read as a factor.

Baldwin's writing is elegant and beautiful. The action of the story is very simple, which helps frame David's tumultuous inner life. The book is short, and it reads quickly -- but it is memorable and haunting.

4.18.2017

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #23

Girl: Do you have this book, something like, "keeping a secret about you"?

Me: Let's take a look in the catalogue. [Stalling for time while scrolling through titles in my mind.] Hmm, do you mean Keeping You a Secret?

Girl: Yes! I took a bus all the way from the South Common branch to here to get this book so I hope you have it.

I recognize it as a good title by Julie Peters, excellent writer of LGBT-themed girl books.

Me: Let's go over to the youth section to look for it.

Girl: Do you know any other good books? Anything LGBT! I want to read lots of LGBT stuff.

Me: You've come to the right place, we have a lot of it. I'm making a list now for our upcoming Pride display. [Technically speaking this is not true -- but I will be updating our list in about a month or so.]

Girl, pumping fist: Yes!

We get to the shelf... and it's there! Yay! We're both happy.

Girl: Is there any place I can charge my phone?

I point out some places she can hang out, she thanks me and leaves -- and I'm immediately sorry I didn't find another title for her.

I remember another good LGBT book, but my mind goes blank when I try to remember the title or the author's name. But I know around where it is on the shelf, so I walk quickly through the youth collection and spot it: The Vast Fields of Ordinary.

I grab it off the shelf and quickly walk around looking for the girl, hoping she is charging her phone. I spot her from across the floor and double-time it over to her.

Me: So glad you're still here! I have another book for you.

She takes it from me.

Girl: Great, I'll take this one, too. Thanks!

I'm totally casual on the outside, but inside I am almost crying from joy. This happens now. Easily, daily, in a perfectly no-big-deal way. Perhaps it should be unremarkable to me -- after all, I do live in Canada in the 21st Century. But this is a sea change I have seen in my lifetime and it fills me with such pride and joy.

I know it isn't like this everywhere, but because it is like this somewhere, it means it can be like this, one day, everywhere.

4.16.2017

we movie to canada: wmtc annual movie awards, 2016-17 edition

I'm actually getting to the annual wmtc movie awards while the baseball season is still young -- a sign that I have a bit more time to myself, as our new local ticks along under the guidance of an awesome team.

First, the annual recap:
- Canadian musicians and comedians (2006-07 and 2007-08)
- my beverage of choice (2008-09)
- famous people who died during the past year (2009-10)
- where I'd like to be (2010-11)
- vegetables (2011-12) (I was out of ideas!)
- Big Life Events in a year full of Big Life Changes (2012-13)
- cheese (I'm getting desperate!) (2013-14)
- types of travels (2014-15)
and last year I reprised famous people who died, plus there is famous people who died, part 2.

This year's theme was a no-brainer for me. In late 2015 and through 2016, I piloted my union through contract negotiations and a strike. It was the first strike for the Mississauga Library Workers, and the first strike against the City of Mississauga!

We were out for three weeks -- and we won. Along with what the strike did for our members, it was a year of enormous personal growth for me. Leading bargaining and the strike used all my experience, all my skills, all my strengths, and all my weaknesses, seemingly putting them all to the test, every single day.

And so, this year's "we movie to canada" theme: the picket line.



The General Strike

Workers from all fields and industries, union and nonunion, waged and unwaged, students and teachers, factory workers and miners, writers and artists, joining together to demonstrate our strength by withholding our collective labour. In February 1919, workers shut down the city of Seattle; a few months later, workers in Winnipeg did the same in their city. Did you know that workers in India staged the largest general strikes in history, first in 2013, then in 2016? (Why was this the most under-reported story of the decade?)

The General Strike is what I most want to see, and these films were the best I saw over the past year.

Diary of a Teenage Girl
-- Brave, honest, and risk-taking, this film reveals an authentic teenage life that may shock some, but rings unerringly true. Drugs, sex, negligent parents, opportunistic adults -- it's all there, as Minnie begins to author her own life. Moving and brilliant.

Mustang
-- In Turkey, five sisters are being raised by their repressive, over-protective uncle. Each girl in turn finds accommodation or escape, in ways that are increasingly sad and tragic. But one girl will not be tamed. Gripping, tragic, triumphant.

Bojack Horseman S3
-- Loneliness, self-doubt, and existential dread, plus endless animal puns and laugh-out-loud comedy. I'm starting to think it's the animal version of The Larry Sanders Show, which means it's one of the best things ever on television.

The Revenant
-- A gripping story of survival, and an authentic-seeming portrayal of the harsh, violent world of the frontier. Sometimes hard to watch, but I was riveted.

Where to Invade Next
-- Michael Moore's latest starts out as comedy, then slowly descends into darkness, perhaps the darkest Moore has ever attempted. I quibble with Moore on a couple of political points, but no matter. This film is great.

13th
-- On my nonfiction reading list is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Alexander is featured in this documentary version, as powerful and disturbing a film as you are likely to see. Don't miss it.




The "Mill Girls"

The "Mill Girl" strikes -- first in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834 and 1836, then the more famous "Bread and Roses" strike in nearby Lawrence in 1912 -- are some of my most beloved moments in labour history and women's history. The fighting spirit of the mill girls lives on in every woman who organizes and fights back.

These were considerably smaller in scope than the general strikes, but they were important, and they have always captured my imagination. These films weren't quite the pinnacle, but they were excellent.

Janis: Little Girl Blue
-- Finally, a movie about Janis Joplin that digs deep and doesn't exploit. Her life was both triumphant and very sad. The image of the rich and famous woman still seeking the approval of her hometown bullies will stay with me a long time. Saddest of all, Janis was expanding her range and her repertoire when she died. An excellent biopic.

I Smile Back
-- Sarah Silverman's performance as a self-destructive, borderline personality is absolutely gripping. The film offers no "overcoming obstacles" balm and no easy answers -- indeed, no answers at all. Disturbing in all the right ways.

The Wire, S5
-- This was a bit of a come-down after the pinnacle of S4. Compared to other seasons, S5 was a tad didactic and obvious. But in the end, it was The Wire -- unmatched.

Jimmy's Hall
-- Just another understated, brilliant film from the Ken Loach / Paul Laverty team. The joy of solidarity, the bitterness of the institutional crushing of dissent, plus the beauty and music of Ireland.

Carol
-- Todd Haynes has made a wonderful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt. Nonconformity, discovery, love, stifling choices, and a gorgeous period piece. Simply beautiful.

Brooklyn
-- 1950s small-town Ireland and immigrant Brooklyn. A lyrical love story, a beautiful period piece, an understated melodrama -- entirely wonderful.

Longmire S5
-- This show just keeps getting better. Now it's detective mystery meets western meets women's liberation.

Suits S1-6
-- Great writing, great acting, and characters that grow in credible and interesting ways. Takes a bit of time to kick in, but rewards you many times over. (I have only one quibble: women in law firms -- whether partners, associates, or assistants -- do not dress like models. A little less cleavage would have increased realism.)

Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the Man Behind the National Enquirer
-- A fascinating biopic of two men you've probably never heard of: Genoroso Pope and Gene Pope, Jr., plus Ric Burns and New York City. Did I say fascinating?

How I Met Your Mother, S9
-- I ended up absolutely loving this show. Barney is the comedy version of Suits character Harvey Specter. I might just watch the whole thing again.

The Fall, S3
-- When Season 2 ended with our hero holding the bloody body of her nemesis, I had no idea how the producers would squeeze out another season. That just shows my total lack of imagination. Season 3 was twisty, shocking -- and great.

Get Smart
-- My current comedy-before-bed is this classic from my childhood. A send-up of James Bond meets Inspector Clouseau. Corny but hilarious. Great for future-famous and uncredited guest stars, too.





CUPE 1989 Mississauga Library Workers Strike

Just your everyday, ordinary library workers, kicking ass for the working class. The strike was worthwhile, and these films are worth seeing.

Look Who's Back
-- What would happen if Hitler never died, and was reanimated in our current world? This film teases out all the implications. Very clever and very thought-provoking.

The Way, Way Back
-- A solid, sweet, unsentimental coming of age story.

Tab Hunter Confidential
-- What was it like to be marketed as a leading man but gay and deeply closeted, in 1950s Hollywood? A solid social history embedded in a biopic.

Trumbo
-- The Hollywood blacklist and a writer determined to defy it. Excellent performances and a good period piece.

The Big Short
-- At first this movie seems to be glorifying the villains of the subprime banking crisis, but that's just a ploy to reel you in.

Irrational Man
-- This dark Woody Allen film has some problems, but it's thought-provoking and a great conversation piece.

Anomalisa
-- Charlie Kaufman, existential crisis, and stop-motion animation. While it often seems (to me) that Kaufman is strange for strange's sake, this ends up being very interesting, even more thought-provoking than the Woody Allen movie above.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream
-- I have no idea why Peter Bogdanovich thought a movie about Tom Petty needed four hours. We watched in one-hour installments, and I made it through two. I really like old Heartbreakers music, and Tom Petty was a maverick in many ways. A decent film, and two hours is plenty.

A Grand Night In: The Story of Aardman
-- A fun romp through the history of Wallace and Grommet and various sheep.

Burnistoun
-- In our continuing search for good sketch comedy, we found this crazy Scottish show. Uneven but often really funny. We need subtitles!

Still Game
-- A raunchy, male, Scottish old-person show. Funny and poignant, and good for a few seasons.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
-- Scientology revealed. It is weirder and more horrifying than I ever imagined.

Finders Keepers
-- A man finds an old grill at an auction. Inside the grill: a human leg. This starts out as weird but comedic, but becomes an examination of class, drugs, lawsuits, and the illusion of celebrity. Really interesting.

Manson Family Vacation
-- A familiar movie trope -- the uptight, responsible adult and the immature, fuck-up sibling -- plus a road trip, with a Manson Family theme. A decent little film, and less predictable than one might expect.

Brooklyn 9-9, S3
-- Still really funny!

Morse
-- While recuperating after the strike, I watched the entire Morse series. It's slow-moving, but brilliant.

The Murdoch Mysteries, S10
-- Still watching! Still enjoying it.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
-- Completely crass, tasteless, and ridiculous, and usually very funny. The comparisons to Seinfeld are obvious, but this would be Jerry's crack-addicted, sex-offender distant cousin. I watched a few seasons before my US Netflix disappeared (again).

Bones, S1-5
-- After The Good Wife and Suits, this is my latest binge-watch. Good detective work, great characters, and has really deepened emotionally. Featuring great recurring roles for both Stephen Fry and Ryan O'Neal.

Marcella
-- A dark, twisty, sometimes confusing murder mystery, which owes a lot to Prime Suspect. Worth seeing if you're into that. Good for fans of The Fall, although nowhere near as good.

The Killing, S1
-- Parts of this were excellent, comparable to S1 of Broadchurch. But the plot holes, fercrissakes! Enjoyed one season but definitely not continuing.



Dear Valued Employee

So began a letter -- mid-strike -- from the library director to our members. Tone-deaf and clueless, it was a low point in labour relations!

The letter did contain a redeeming quality: it strengthened our solidarity. These movies are pretty awful, but they each contain some scrap of value.

American Hustle
-- This has all the markers of a film I should love, and I really wanted to love it. Instead, I found it stiff, bloated, and way too long, plus suffering from an intrusive soundtrack. It's better than a 2, but not quite a 3.

Everybody Wants Some!!
-- The long-awaited sequel to 1993's "Dazed and Confused" is really just a showcase of 1980 college "types".  There are some nice moments, but after all the hype, what a disappointment.

Breaking Bad
-- Everyone says this is a great series. I liked it at first, but quickly found it too non-believable, almost silly.

Ricki and the Flash
-- This was a perfectly serviceable redemption movie with some rock and roll thrown in. It has a great cast and avoids the worst of the many cliches inherent in the material. And then -- it falls off a cliff. The ending is so bad, so completely, cringingly awful, that it pulls the whole movie down the stupid hole with it. Absolutely, amazingly bad.

Born to be Blue
-- String together a bunch of jazz cliches, add Ethan Hawke. Hawke's presence saves this from the scrap heap.

Danny Collins
-- Not unlike Meryl Streep and Ethan Hawke in the two movies above, Al Pacino turns in a performance worth seeing. But yawn. Yet another movie where the main character is a self-centered boor, has been that way all his life and through 90% of the movie, then makes a miraculous transformation and is redeemed -- for no discernible reason.

The Tribe
-- Set in a home for deaf children, filmed with no dialogue or subtitles, this movie is dark, gripping, and very interesting -- for a while. Then it becomes impossible to figure out characters' motivations or what is going on. Cool idea, but it didn't work.

Green Room
-- We loved "Blue Ruin", this director's earlier film, so had high hopes for a taut, suspenseful thriller. Alas, this turned out to be a contrived locked-in-a-room-together horror flick.

The Martian
-- Shipwrecked sailor, forced to survive on ingenuity, guts, and humour -- a familiar tale translated into space. There were some nice moments, like when the whole world cheers together. But honestly, I was bored.

Twenty Feet from Stardom
-- This documentary about backup singers could have been great. There were a few fascinating glimpses into a world that is usually invisible. But so much of it is unfocused, meaningless, filler. There were some interesting tidbits, plus you get to hear an isolated track of Merry Clayton on "Gimme Shelter".

Star Trek: Voyager
-- This is the second time I've tried this series. The first time, I watched three episodes. This time I made it through eight. It's heavy on the nuts-and-bolts sci-fi, which I don't really like, and light on the emotional content, which I do. Well, I tried.




Precarious Work

There's nothing good about precarious work. These movies are a must to avoid.

Misconduct
-- Blackmail, corruption, bad writing, and bad acting.

This Must Be the Place
-- I really like Sean Penn, so I was completely surprised by his terrible performance in this movie. And yay, a character finds redemption and completely changes! For no reason! Yet again!

Entertainment
-- Only after seeing this movie did I learn that actor/comedian (?) Gregg Turkington has a stage persona called Neil Hamburger, and that this film was a vehicle for that unlikeable character. Maybe if you already know and understand the backstory, this film works? Assuming you are not interested in Turkington/Hamburger, it is just absolutely dreadful.

The Mindy Project, S3
-- I really liked S1 and S2, despite some clunkers. This was just unwatchable. Wow.

best of wmtc, 2016 edition

Even though I don't blog very much anymore, my editor still manages to find some highlights.

Best of wmtc, 2016 edition.

4.08.2017

disrupt and transform: 2017 cupe ontario library workers conference

The 2017 CUPE Ontario Library Workers Conference was a very special event for the Mississauga Library Workers Union. Over the course of two days, our 2016 strike and the great gains we made for our members were celebrated from the podium again and again. In the same way, the tremendous perseverance and solidarity shown by the Essex County Library Workers -- on strike for a stunning eight months -- were noted, applauded, cheered, and celebrated, again and again. For the 1989 executive board, it was a joyous event.

The theme of this year's conference was Disrupt and Transform -- which is exactly what our strikes did. They transformed our union, our relationship with our employer, and ourselves.



Library Warriors!

We were welcomed by CUPE Ontario Library Chair Maureen O'Reilly, who is president of Local 4948, Toronto Public Library Workers, and by Chad Goebel, Vice President of Windsor District CUPE Council. Amanda Meloche, President of the Windsor Public Library Workers Union, noted: “It's not just Essex and Mississauga that have Library Warriors. We're all Library Warriors!” Very true!

Keynote speaker Desmond Cole began by talking about his love for libraries, and how, when he was growing up, the local library was his second home. He remembers carrying a book bag, and his mother's rule that he could borrow as many books as fit in the bag; every week the bag would be overflowing. For many conference participants, this was the first time they had heard Desmond speak, and most were entranced. He's a truly engaging speaker with a powerful message.

Desmond has been instrumental in shining a light on racism in Canada, especially racist policing practices. He said he was touched and very proud that his article in Toronto Life magazine -- The Skin I'm In -- was featured in our conference book.

Desmond talked about how collective action can have a direct impact -- how it changes our lives and our society. Recently Desmond called a ministry office to urge them to stop a deportation. A family was being broken up, and a woman, eight months pregnant, was being forced to risk her health by flying. The ministry representative said to Desmond, "What makes you think you speak for Canadians?" Within minutes, Desmond was on Twitter, reaching out to the community, asking supporters -- for whom he does speak -- to call the ministry. Result: the woman was not deported. The family remained intact. When we are organized and mobilized, we can disrupt the status quo, and transform the world.

Lori Wightman, head of the Essex County Library Workers, and I, as president of CUPE 1989, each made presentations about our locals' strikes.
Members of Locals 1989 and 2974 were
honoured onstage.

Lori talked about the huge community support their union built, how they faced down the Essex Council, and how the devious, union-busting tactics of the Council will be remembered at election time. It was no surprise, later in the conference, when Lori was elected to the CUPE Ontario Library Workers Committee. I look forward to working with her!

I talked about how we built member engagement, strengthened our labour-management meetings, and took a new approach at the bargaining table. These factors, working together synergistically, paved the way for our successful strike.

I also listed the great gains we made. There are the tangible gains, like bringing our pages from slightly more than minimum wage to $15/hour in one leap and preventing our part-timers from being forced to work every Saturday. And there are many intangible gains, such as the strength and solidarity we built, and the confidence and courage our members gained when they found their voices, stood up, and fought back.

We also screened our awesome strike video! If you've never seen it -- or if you haven't seen it in a while -- why not watch it now?


Chris Taylor, President of Unifor Local 200, talked about the historic Windsor Ford Strike of 1945, which led directly to the Rand Formula. Chris emphasized -- he warned us -- about the so-called "Right to Work" legislation that has spread through the United States, leaving depressed wages and increased poverty in its wake.

If Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservative Party had won the last provincial election, our ability to run our unions could have been destroyed. Hudak was defeated through the mobilization of the Canadian labour movement. Chris' talk was an excellent reminder that we must always be vigilant. Our rights don't protect themselves.

A little library humour -- and a great honour.
Local reports are always a highlight of the conference. Hearing about the struggles and successes of other library unions renews our commitment and bolsters our strength. We are all dealing with the same issues, but our contracts vary widely. By sharing information, we all grow stronger at the bargaining table.

It was my great honour to introduce Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario. I recalled Fred's tireless support during our strike, and how he helped bring the City of Mississauga back to the bargaining table, while still respecting our local's autonomy and supporting our demands. Fred, I said, is the embodiment of why we call each other brother and sister.


Fred's talk was typically moving. He talked about libraries as collectives -- people working together to bring our shared, public resources to people who need them. He reminded us of the silver linings of a strike -- the bonds it creates, and yes, the fun we had! And he noted that the record number of strikes throughout Ontario in the past year made him proud. That's how you know Fred is a true unionist.

Fred reminded us that there’s nothing wrong with being aggressive when defending the rights of our members: when you're on the right side of the question, you are right to keep fighting!

Both Fred and Candace Rennick, Secretary-Treasurer of CUPE Ontario, emphasized the need for solidarity with other striking locals. Right now, workers from a Children's Aid Society are locked out by their employer, and the members of the Canadian Hearing Society workers' union are fighting harsh concessions, after being without a contract for four long years. I join Fred and Candace in urging you to support these locals however you can: there's information here.

At one point during the Conference, members from the Mississauga and Essex County libraries were called on stage to be honoured. In a bit of library humour, Lori Wightman and I were given some gifts, including a Wonder Woman action figure and a play crown. It was very funny -- and very touching.

The CUPE 1989 Executive Board thanks our members for giving us the opportunity to attend this excellent conference. We know our union will benefit from it in many ways.

3.24.2017

ontario librarians: should the ola support staffless libraries?

This week, the Toronto Public Library announced plans to open libraries with no staff. Not just no librarians -- we've seen that in many places -- but no staff whatsoever.

This was bad enough, but we were further horrified to see that the Ontario Library Association, a membership-based organization that is supposed to further the interests of libraries and librarians, seems to support this idea. OLA Executive Director had the chutzpah to re-frame this as "innovative".

If you are a librarian in Ontario, I hope you will provide feedback to the OLA through this petition: The OLA Should Oppose Staffless Libraries. Please consider sharing with your own library network.

* * * *



* * * *

March 23, 2017

Shelagh Paterson
Executive Director
Ontario Library Association
Toronto, Ontario

Dear Ms. Paterson:

We, the undersigned, are public librarians in the province of Ontario and members of the Ontario Library Association (OLA). We are concerned and disturbed by the OLA’s apparent support for current trends in library staffing that are grossly detrimental to our profession and to the public we serve.

The Toronto Public Library has announced plans to open staffless libraries. This is antithetical to the core values of our profession and to our shared vision of what libraries are and should be.

In a Toronto Star article about this development, you are quoted as saying, “we’re very lucky here in Ontario that we have a library culture that is willing to try new things . . . and I would say that sometimes what drives that is budget cuts.”

We are deeply disturbed that, rather than advocating for adequate library funding, the OLA would re-define budget cuts as a driver of innovation.

The Star article also quotes you as saying, “I think you may not actually see the librarian in your visit to the library, but there is a librarian behind the scenes putting it all together and delivering a really excellent service.”

A staffless library can never be “a really excellent service.” Librarians and library staff “behind the scenes” of a building devoid of people are not enough. A truly excellent library service is one in which educated, trained professionals offer a wide range of services that support literacy, lifelong learning, and social engagement, and enable communities to thrive.

The OLA’s mission statement states that the organization enables members to “deliver exemplary library and information services throughout Ontario.” A library without librarians – indeed, a library without library staff of any kind – is not an exemplary library, and is indeed not a service of any kind.

Further, the OLA’s vision of an Ontario where everyone is “free to imagine, learn and discover, and recognize and celebrate library and information services as an essential resource for realizing individual aspirations and developing communities” is exactly the opposite of the current trend towards minimal – and now, nonexistent – staffing. A staffless library privileges members of our community who are affluent, information-rich, and technologically literate, and increases social inequality.

We believe the OLA should unequivocally oppose the staffless library.

We believe the OLA should actively advocate for well funded, fully staffed libraries, and should actively promote the value to the community of librarians and other educated, trained library staff.

Sincerely,

The Undersigned Ontario Librarians

Sign here: The OLA Should Oppose Staffless Libraries.

3.19.2017

hail hail rock 'n' roll: rip chuck berry


To mark the death of rock legend Chuck Berry, everyone should watch "Hail Hail Rock 'n' Roll," Taylor Hackford's movie chronicling two concerts that celebrated Berry's 60th birthday.

If you want to know what all the fuss is about, if you need historical context to understand what Chuck Berry meant to all of rock, see this movie.

Here is Berry and "his band" performing my favourite version of my favourite Chuck Berry song.




I'm glad he lived to be an old man, and see his contributions honoured. This obituary by the great music writer Jon Pareles says it all.

what i'm reading: a mother's reckoning by sue klebold

On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two teenagers from Littleton, Colorado, marched into Columbine High School with explosives and automatic weapons. Their plan to blow up the entire school failed -- only because their homemade bombs did not explode -- so they walked around the school shooting people. They killed 12 students and one teacher, wounded 24 others, and unleashed untold mental suffering on their entire community, before killing themselves.

I very clearly remember hearing about this, and just as clearly remember thinking that the Klebold and Harris families had suffered the worst tragedy of all. What could be worse than your child dying in a school shooting? To me, the answer is all too obvious: knowing your child took the lives of other children. I remember, too, feeling so sad and discouraged when some Columbine parents refused to allow Klebold and Harris to be memorialized along with the other victims, insisting the memorials acknowledge 13 dead, not 15.

When I saw a book review and noticed the author's last name, I knew instantly who she was, and immediately put the book on hold at our library. This is a rare opportunity to look behind the scenes at the bizarre phenomenon of mass shootings, from a perspective of kindness and mercy.

In the first half of the book, Sue Klebold details the day of the shooting, and the days and weeks that followed, from her own perspective. In the second half, she writes about her journey to try to understand her son's actions, and her long-term survival, as she finds community -- in this case, survivors of suicide loss -- and becomes a suicide-prevention activist. Her writing is vivid and intensely emotional. Some parts of this book are so raw and laden with such pain that they are barely readable. Reading this book sometimes feels like peering too deeply into someone's most private heart.

Throughout, Klebold is meticulously careful to explain that seeking to understand what her son did does not mean she is excusing it. Again and again, she writes that Dylan was responsible for his own actions and that probing his mental illness does not negate that. She writes this so often, as though she wants anyone who opens the book to any random page to read this. I found it very sad that she felt she needed to do that -- but her story makes it obvious why she did.

It did not surprise me to learn that almost everything written or said in the media about the Klebold family was completely wrong. This book is clearly, in part, an attempt to set the record straight, or at least get another perspective in the public view. And again, when one reads what was said versus what actually existed, the writer's desire to do this is very understandable.

The book is suffused in regret. Sue Klebold remembers every instance, every tiny moment, where she chided or nagged when she could have hugged, when she said, "Get yourself together!" instead of "How can I help you?" Yet these instances, as she recounts them, are so ordinary, so commonplace. She was a loving mother and if at times she was irritated with or tough on her teenage son, it was all within the bounds of normalcy.

One might say that Dylan Klebold exhibited no signs of depression or other mental illness before the shooting. Sue Klebold emphatically rejects this idea, and insists there were signs, but she and Dylan's father didn't know how to read them.

I cannot agree. I didn't think any of the instances she recounts were a red flag for such violence, nor did there seem to be a pattern. All the behaviour seemed like that of a normal, if somewhat troubled, teenager -- and "troubled teenager" can be a redundancy. After reading this book, I believe the only way Sue and Tom Klebold could have known that their son was at risk for violence is if they had constantly searched his room -- something they had no cause to do and an act that might have driven him further out of reach.

When Sue Klebold read her son's journals (found by police) and saw the videos the two boys made, she felt as though she was looking at a total stranger. Dylan Klebold led two lives. As some supportive letter-writers told Sue Klebold, if someone really wants to hide something, they will. (Eric Harris is a different story. There were many clear signs.)

I knew that many Columbine families blamed the parents for the boys' actions, which strikes me as strange, cruel, and grossly unfair. Because of that, I was very heartened to know that the Klebolds received thousands of letters of sympathy and support -- from people whose children had committed atrocities, from survivors of suicide loss, from victims of bullying who thought it lucky incidents like this don't happen more often. Many people understood the family's pain and wanted them to know they were not alone. I took great relief from this.

The latter portion of the book is largely about suicide prevention, and recognizing the signs of clinical depression in children and teens, which are different than in adults. Klebold calls for nothing less than an entirely new approach to mental health.

This is a very sad book, but in the end, it's a book about survival. Sue Klebold lived through a tragedy of immense proportions. She chose to survive and, eventually, found a way to create meaning from her loss. Her book is sure to help many other people do that, too.

3.18.2017

mighty leaf tea: green tea and greenwashing

I recently tried a new brand of tea. I'm always looking for almond tea, which is difficult or impossible to find (more on that below), and noticed Mighty Leaf had an Almond Spice. It's green tea, and I prefer black, but I thought for the almond, I'd take a chance.




The Mighty Leaf Tea box is covered in stories about how carefully they care for the tea, the quality of their tea leaves, and how green the company is. The tea is whole leaf only, the tea pouches are made from the greenest material, and so on.

Back when we had organics recycling, we always tossed used tea bags in the "green bin". Now, living in an apartment, we no longer have that option. The tea bag is going in the trash anyway, so the greenness of the pouch isn't a big concern for me. However, ordinary tea bags are fine for organics recycling, so I'm not sure why this pouch is so special.

When I brought the tea home and opened the box, I was surprised and dismayed to find each individual pouch packaged inside a plastic sleeve! Fifteen tea pouches, 15 plastic sleeves! What the...?

Mighty Leaf tea pouch

Mighty Leaf tea pouch as packaged

I tweeted the company and did not get a response, then tried email.
Hello,

I recently bought a box of Mighty Leaf tea for the first time. When I opened the box, I was horrified to find each pouch packaged in an individual plastic bag! I would never have bought this tea if I had known this -- and it is exactly the opposite of all the promotional copy on the box.

I am planning on writing about this on my blog, but wanted to contact you first, so I can include your statement or reaction.

I'm guessing this plastic is some specially made material that is considered biodegradable. But as I'm sure you know, almost nothing biodegrades in landfill. Are the plastic pouches suitable for organics disposal? If so, why doesn't it say so on the box?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you,

I received this response.
Hi Laura,

Thank you for your e-mail. Our tea pouches are in fact bio-degradable and compostable, although we would recommend industrial composting available in many parts of Canada. Our tea pouch has in fact won awards for being environmentally friendly:

[This was pasted in.] Artisan Hand-Stitched Pouches

In ancient traditions around the world, a freshly brewed pot filled with whole tea leaves is revered as the richest in character. Inspired by this legacy, Mighty Leaf specially created the silken Tea Pouch filled with the world’s finest whole tea leaves, herbs, fruits and flavor. No longer was it necessary to brew a pot of tea and use a strainer or an infuser to experience whole leaf tea the way it's enjoyed in gardens across the world!

Each portion of whole leaf tea is precisely measured and carefully wrapped in our hand-stitched pouches. These large, silken pouches showcase the distinctive beauty of our special blends and give the leaves room to unfurl as they steep, allowing the nuanced flavors to fully infuse for the ideal tea experience.

Besides the beautiful leaves you’ll notice that our pouches have a lot of tea inside. Typically our pouches contain about two and a half grams of tea, which allows you to brew a large cup of tea (btw 12oz to 14oz).

Each tea pouch is hand stitched with 100% unbleached cotton. The silken material is made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is derived from corn starch. The pouches are biodegradable and can be composted in an industrial composter.
The email also included this image.


I find the tea-pouch narrative a bit much. But in practical terms, did this person really misunderstand my question? Was my question unclear? I tried again.
Hi,

Thank you for your reply. However, I was not referring to the tea pouches. Each pouch is packaged in an individual plastic sleeve. I am referring to that outer container or sleeve.
He replied:
Hi again Laura,

In order to conserve the freshness of our teas and herbal infusions we need to hermetically seal them in some form of envelope. Unfortunately nobody has yet developed a material in which you can hermetically our teas which is also biodegradable. As you can tell from the environmentally friendly efforts that we made with our tea pouches, as soon as someone does, we will look at using it.

Enjoy our teas!
I'm afraid I took it one step further, and I did (unintentionally) ignore the word "hermetically".
Are you kidding me? One already exists. It's called paper.
Their response.
Hi again Laura,

No, I don’t believe I am kidding you – paper cannot hermetically seal, unless of course you wax it and then it won’t biodegrade.
Does tea really need to be hermetically sealed? Why isn't a paper envelope -- similar to how Lipton (US) and Red Rose (Canada) are packaged -- adequate? My all-time favourite tea, Bewley's (Ireland and the UK), uses mesh bags with no string and no paper. Works great.

I didn't like the almond tea very much, probably because it is green tea rather than black. But no matter how much I enjoyed it, I would not buy a product loaded down with unnecessary plastic packaging.

* * * *

The story of the almond tea. I used to love Celestial Seasoning Almond Sunset tea, but it disappeared many years ago, apparently discontinued. I have not been able to find a decent substitute, even in expensive loose-leaf tea, which I would rather not buy. For this post, I found the Celestial Seasoning website -- and they have a Canadian site, too -- which encourages you to contact them if you cannot find what you want in stores. If I could buy Almond Sunset directly from CS, that would be amazing.

And why don't I use loose-leaf tea? We do sometimes buy and enjoy loose tea for interesting flavours or because we find ourselves in a nice tea shop. But we drink tea every day, and we both enjoy the convenience, the strong flavour, and the consistency of tea bags. Our favourite is Bewley's Irish Tea, which we used to go out of our way to buy in New York. We have not found a convenient place to buy it in the GTA, but if I ever see a box, I would pounce on it.

3.12.2017

should we give up our voip phone and only have cell phones? help me decide.

The ancient technology I grew up with,
including the colour.
We still have a bit of antiquated technology called a home phone.

We use a VoIP phone -- have done so since 2002 -- which is why I say "home phone" rather than "landline". Our home phone is not a landline.

I've blogged about VoIP in the past: it's reliable, very inexpensive, and easier to use than Skype.* I also like the flat-rate monthly fee that includes all the bells and whistles. The only catch is that if your internet connection or power goes down, you have no phone, so it's best to have a cell phone as a backup.

Then we graduated to this.
The other relevant fact here is that Allan doesn't use a cell phone. He's had a cell phone at various times, and he hated them, and doesn't want to be bothered. (I actually have several friends who don't use mobile devices.)

And now this. But they suck.
This means that if I'm not home and there is a power failure or internet failure, Allan has no phone. This is not safe. A few months ago, Allan was in a minor car accident, and now I am insisting that he have a cell phone.

Recently our phone -- the hardware, not the service -- began to die, yet again. I find that no matter what brand I buy, the hardware (like everything else these days) is cheaply made crap that only last a few years. So, rather than buy yet another portable phone system, I'm thinking of getting rid of our home phone altogether.

I think no one under the age of 30 (or is it 40?) has a home phone or even thinks about the concept of it. But before I cancel Vonage, I want to be sure. Do we still need our home phone? What do you think?

* I also blogged about a crazy ordeal I had moving from Vonage US to Vonage Canada. And I notice in that post I still liked Rogers!

i have found the way to make perfect hardboiled eggs (or, in which buzzfeed improves my life)

In Egypt, breakfast almost always includes a hardboiled egg. Even the breakfast cart parked near our bus to Petra had a bowl of hardboiled eggs. And the eggs are always perfect. The shell slides right off, leaving a smooth, perfect white, and a bright yellow yolk. How do they do it?

Way back, I posted my method for making hardboiled eggs, which at the time, I thought was perfect. Alas, it was not. With some batches, every egg peels perfectly. Others, about half do. And in some batches, I'm lucky if two or three eggs peel well, and the rest are a mess.

My beginner's Arabic is nowhere near good enough to discuss cooking methods, and none of our Breakfast Guys had sufficient English, so I didn't ask. I just peeled and ate each egg, marvelling at the consistent perfection. I was so excited about the eggs that I peeled one for Allan every morning, too.

On the internet, you'll find many different egg-boiling recipes, each claiming to be The Best. I decided that when we got home, I would collect all the methods and conduct an experiment, using all different methods, writing down which eggs were made with which methods, and so on.

When I started googling, I found that Buzzfeed had done the work for me! This post -- I Tested Out Popular Tricks To Make Hard-Boiled Eggs Easier To Peel -- is exactly as advertised. Buzzfeed staff writer Mathew Jedeikin collected all the advice from the internet, made a whole bunch of eggs for his husband's breakfast, and reported back on the results. In typical Buzzfeed fashion, there are lots of pictures of the results and honking big titles -- with baking soda, with vinegar, with and without ice bath, starting from boiling, starting from cold water, and so on.

So thanks to Buzzfeed, I can now post the way to make Perfect Hardboiled Eggs. I made a dozen at a time, as I always do.

1. Begin with a low boil, not a full-on rolling boil.
2. Add vinegar -- about 15 mls (1 tablespoon) per 4 cups of water.
3. Use a slotted spoon to gently lower eggs into the water.
4. Boil for 14 minutes.
5. Remove eggs to ice bath.
6. When eggs have cooled down, they are ready to peel and eat, or to peel and store in the fridge.

This method solves three previous issues.

One, I had been lowering eggs into rapidly boiling water, causing the eggs to explode. The gentle boil fixes that.

Two, the vinegar dissolves enough of the calcium to loosen the shell's grip on the egg.

And three -- shared with my old method -- the ice bath shrinks the inner membrane for even easier peeling.

The vinegar and the ice bath might be redundant, but I'm willing to use both methods to arrive at perfection.

(I notice that many commenters on the Buzzfeed story are horrified. "Who the hell boils eggs for 14 minutes?" "How do you stand the vinegar?" and blahblahblah. I don't know what they're complaining about, but if you dislike vinegar or you feel strongly that 14 minutes is too long to boil an egg, perhaps these comments will be helpful to you.)

3.06.2017

in which i come home and get caught up without anxiety (hooray for medication)

I recently had a very positive experience with anti-anxiety medication, and realized I should share it here.

I've written many times about the wonders of modern medicine for treating depression and anxiety, and the life-changing, relationship-saving, and quite possibly life-saving effects of using the right medication. While these drugs may be sometimes prescribed unnecessarily, I believe they are under used -- that many more people could be helped by these meds, if their own biases didn't stand in the way, and if everyone had equal access to healthcare.

My mega-wrap-up of my perspective is here: in defense of drugs: anti-depressant medication saves and improves lives.

* * * *

I've had a prescription for an as-needed anti-anxiety medication for many, many years. In the past, I used them very infrequently, less than once a month, and sometimes only a few times a year.

Two years ago, I had a sharp uptick in anxiety, and realized I should be taking the meds more often. When I asked my doctor for a refill, she expressed concern about the frequency of use, and suggested I use an SSRI instead -- that is, she wanted me to use something daily, rather than as-needed.

I was pretty resistant to the idea -- which is interesting, given everything I've said and written about this! I already take several medications, and I just didn't want to believe that I needed another. I let it go for a while, but when I needed yet another refill, my doctor was more insistent.

She explained to me things I knew but had conveniently forgotten. Drugs like clonazepam are very habit-forming. The body builds up a tolerance very quickly, so that it takes increasingly higher dosages to achieve the same results. After a time, your brain "forgets" how to feel normal without the medication. There has been substance abuse in my family, especially around prescription painkillers and sleeping pills, and I have struggled with my own addictive personality as well. So what was I doing?

That was all I needed. I decided to try one.

Wow! I could not believe how much better I felt. I discovered that I had been experiencing anxiety almost all the time. I had become so accustomed to it, that it felt normal to me. I only recognized the anxiety when it spiked, when it felt like an anxiety "attack".

I felt calm, clear-headed, and in control. I was suddenly able to look at my to-do lists and my crowded calendar without panic -- and without the not-quite-panic-but-something-approaching-panic that I usually experienced.

This has led to greater focus, and to greater enjoyment of my jobs. I can think more clearly. I can understand -- finally -- that my life is within my capabilities. I can get it done.

I don't know if there's been an external manifestation of this or not. I have no idea if I seemed anxious and now seem different, or if the whole time it has been internal only. I only talk about my health issues to a few people. This is not because I fear stigma or negative reaction, but because I prefer to de-emphasize it for myself. I do not want to identify with an illness; I find this an important part of maintaining good mental health. (I mean this with no judgment of anyone who does otherwise. There's no one-size-fits-all.)

Coming home from our recent trip to Egypt and Jordan was a big test of this new-found calm. I knew I had a ton of work waiting for me, both library and union, including some Big Things I had been preparing for before we left. In the past, I would have felt a lot of anxiety, beginning the day before we headed home. Once home, I would be in a state of semi-panic, trying to plow through all the work at once, moving as fast as possible, as if it all had to be done immediately.

This time: none of that. Anxiety was a place in the distance. I could see it, I was aware of its presence, but could simply choose not to visit it. Clear-headed, calm, getting things done.

* * * *

One more thing. When I was looking for an image for this post, I saw a lot of the mini-posters you see on Facebook, supposedly articulating what anxiety feels like. I didn't relate to any of them. None of them described how I feel. Don't know why that is.

3.01.2017

amman to cairo to home: in which things out work very nicely

EgyptAir, we love you! I'm writing this from an airport hotel, where I did not expect to be.

After Ridiculous Breakfast #3, we did a little negotiating (see below), then packed up for the airport. On a tip from the concierge, we stopped at the beautiful Zalatimo Brothers for Sweets on the way. I was quite pleased: this saved time and solved a problem. And then, as we walked into the airport, we saw... Zalatimo Brothers for Sweets! They have a small outpost near the international departures.

The flight from Amman to Cairo was fast and uneventful. The EgyptAir rep in Amman told us we would have to go through passport control and customs, get our luggage, then check into our next flight, and so on. Turns out this was untrue.

We were waiting in the passport control line in Cairo, when a man approached us, claiming to be from EgyptAir, saying they have a free hotel room and dinner for us, and do we want to see the pyramids, too?

It took quite a bit of convincing that he was legit, but once I gave in, things started to happen.

Apparently any time an EgyptAir passenger has a layover of more than six hours, the airline arranges a complimentary hotel room and meal. Say whaaat? 

First we went to the EygptAir counter, where our New Best Friend cut through both apathy and red tape, and secured our hotel and meal voucher.

Then he took us to the visa window. Our original visa was good for 30 days, but expired when we left Egypt a few days earlier. The visa window was a comedy, or maybe a farce. The guy who refused to take anything but Egyptian pounds a few weeks ago now refused to take that same currency. Next window, not working, says the person working there. Next window, how about Jordan dinars?

We paid some LEs, some JDs, currency flying around at two different windows, and boom, we had new entry visas. There is absolutely no way we could have done this on our own.

Next, the passport control lines are all gone and the agents have disappeared. But NBF finds someone to stamp our passports.

Next, he whisks us down to the baggage carousel, piles all our things onto a cart, and hurries us towards an airport shuttle bus.

Several times along the way, he has asked if we want to see the pyramids one more time. Half-hour to get there, one hour there, and a half-hour back, with the transportation costing 50 LEs. Given the distance between airport and Giza, it was a sweet deal -- but it felt too rushed and too busy. We declined.

So now, instead of sitting in the airport for nearly 10 hours, we are relaxing in a well air-conditioned hotel room, and can eat, shower, and change clothes before our flight.

* * * *

Our stay in the Amman Marriott was nearly perfect.

The room was lovely, the food was great, and the staff was amazing. As I've mentioned, the breakfast was very expensive, but it also was incredible -- a huge variety of freshly prepared foods of all types, different each day, with seemingly no possible breakfast desire left unsatisfied.*

I say "nearly" perfect, because there was one problem. The temperature of our room was quite high, and the air conditioning didn't work. The first night, Allan made multiple late-night calls to the desk, and more than one person visited the room, with more than one excuse given. Eventually the air did turn on, and the room did cool down a bit.

The second day, the air conditioning continued to work.

On the third day, we returned from Madaba to a hot room. More phone calls, more apologies and excuses... but no AC. We spent some time eating and drinking in the lounge, and returned to an uncomfortably hot room. The heat woke me up in the middle of the night. More phone calls, but to no avail.

This shouldn't happen to you in any hotel, but in a five-star hotel that is reputed to be one of the best in the country... no. Just no. I hope everyone reading this already knows this: when you are inconvenienced, you should be compensated.

At breakfast, we discussed what we thought would be a fair rebate, and sat down with the concierge to discuss. (His nameplate said "Customer Relations / Concierge.) The outcome: all three breakfasts comped. Many thanks to the Amman Marriott and their awesome staff.


* For those who like food details: an assortment of breads, rolls, pastries, and donuts; Arabic dips such as hummus, eggplant dip, etc.; salads such as lentil, quinoa, chopped vegetables; smoked fish; meats, cheeses; all condiments for all of the above, such as onions, capers, lemon, etc.; beef sausage, beef bacon, potatoes (prepared differently each day); mini eggs benedict; waffles, pancakes, and omelettes made to order; soups; fresh squeezed juices; oatmeal, yogurt, and dry cereals and all toppings that might conceivably be put in those; fresh fruit; falafel, kibbeh, bean stew, and other Arabic dishes. And even with this long list, I'm sure there are choices I have forgotten. Everything is very high quality and freshly prepared.

2.28.2017

unesco world heritage sites i have visited

The United Nations Educational, Scientic, and Cultural Organization -- better known as UNESCO -- has created a list of natural and human-made sites that "are of outstanding universal value" and meet a selection criteria. UNESCO:
Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.
The list helps identify sites that are at risk because of war, environmental degradation, neglect, or tourism.

I love the very idea of this list -- that all the peoples of the world share a common heritage. All our pasts are linked, as is our future.

I went through the list by country, and picked out the sites I have visited. Sites I want to visit -- that's pretty much the full list minus whatever I've seen. That's not a realistic travel goal! So when we plan travel, I do like to know if there are any UNESCO sites on the itinerary.

Here's my list, by country.

Belgium
La Grand-Place, Brussels

Canada
L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
Historic District of Old Québec
Gros Morne National Park
Rideau Canal

Egypt
Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis
Historic Cairo
Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur
Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae

France
Chartres Cathedral
Palace and Park of Versailles
Amien Cathedral
Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments
Pont du Gard (Roman Aqueduct)
Paris, Banks of the Seine

Ireland
Brú na Bóinne - Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne (Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth)

Italy
Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with "The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci
Historic Centre of Rome
Historic Centre of Florence
Piazza del Duomo, Pisa
Venice and its Lagoon
Historic Centre of San Gimignano
Historic Centre of Naples
Historic Centre of Siena
Archaeological Areas of Pompei, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata
Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park with the Archeological Sites of Paestum and Velia, and the Certosa di Padula
City of Verona
Mount Etna

Jordan
Petra

Mexico
Historic Centre of Mexico City and Xochimilco
Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán
Historic Centre of Puebla
Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque
Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan
Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza
Pre-Hispanic Town of Uxmal

Netherlands
Defence Line of Amsterdam
Seventeenth-Century Canal Ring Area of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht

Peru
City of Cuzco
Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu
Chavin (Archaeological Site)
Chan Chan Archaeological Zone
Historic Centre of Lima
Lines and Geoglyphs of Nasca and Palpa
Historical Centre of the City of Arequipa
Sacred City of Caral-Supe

Spain
Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín, Granada
Historic Centre of Cordoba
Works of Antoni Gaudí
Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain
Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct
Historic Walled Town of Cuenca
Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau, Barcelona

United Kingdom
Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites
Blenheim Palace
City of Bath
Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey including Saint Margaret's Church
Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey, and St Martin's Church
Tower of London
Dorset and East Devon Coast

United States of America
Yellowstone National Park
Grand Canyon National Park
Independence Hall
Redwood National and State Parks
Olympic National Park
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Statue of Liberty
Yosemite National Park
Chaco Culture
Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville

It's interesting to see what is on the list, and what isn't. The criteria is here.

amman: madaba

After our second ridiculous breakfast, we took a taxi to a public bus. Tourists are "supposed to" book a tour or a taxi to the sights outside of Amman, but when we travel, we usually just take the local bus. Egypt was the exception to this, because it really wasn't possible there.

We went 30-40 minutes south of Amman, to a town called Madaba, which has many Byzantine-era mosaics. The big draw, which we were keen to see, is on the floor of a Greek Orthodox church -- a mosaic map of the region, dating from the 6th Century. It is really interesting, depicting some biblical locations, some geographic locations, animals, plants, and names of towns (in Greek). The best and most famous section is a map of Jerusalem. The mosaic is the oldest surviving map of the so-called Holy Land.

Just now looking online to confirm some facts, I notice that the map described on Wikipedia does not bear a strong resemblance to what I saw today. The entry makes the map sound more detailed and precise than it is. But for me it is more of a work of art with social significance than a historic document.

We skipped the Madaba Archaeological Museum (on the Jordan Pass) and some other Christian-themed sites, and instead hunted down mosaics all over town. We saw these at two Madaba Archaeological Parks (Jordan Pass again) and another church on the other side of the town. One of the Arch Parks has a huge mosaic that was found in a private home (and expropriated), which you view from a gallery above. This contains elements from the Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic eras, each adding on to what was already there.

In an otherwise empty building called Church of the Apostles (Jordan Pass), we saw a huge floor mosaic depicting parts of a Greek tragedy, along with animals, plants, and a personification of the ocean, surrounded by fish and dolphins.

We were looking at it from a gallery when the guy from the ticket booth appeared, and called us to step around and under the barrier. We picked our way around, trying to step only on patches of concrete, but at times Ticket Booth Guy was walking on the mosaic, and we had to take a step or two on it as well. Allan and I both hurried over it, as if that somehow made it better!

Ticket Booth Guy also dusted off one small portion of the mosaic. To our amazement, under the dust, the colours were vibrant. There is very little colour left on any of the town's surviving mosaics (except the map). At one time, these mosaics would have been full of blues, reds, and golds.

We bought a couple of shwarmas for lunch and ate them on a bench in front of the map church. We were joking that if anyone asked what we were doing there, we'd say we were waiting for our group. Then when we finished eating, we would say, oh right, I just remembered, we don't have a group, bye now! Of course no one bothered us.

Finding our way back to the hotel was a bit interesting. We found the bus terminal, but none of the buses are marked, there are no signs, and there's no schedule. Buses leave when they're full. We asked around a bit, found the bus, took it as far into Amman as we dared, then got out and hailed a taxi.

Both trips, to Madaba and return, the drivers smoked and talked on their cell phones almost the entire trip. On the way there, we think the driver called ahead, then pulled over to a fruit stand to pick up a bag of oranges. On the way back, the driver never broke 50 kms/hr (30 mph), even on the highway. Buses stop on exit ramps and busy shoulders to drop off or pick up passengers. Passengers descend the bus stairs directly into traffic.

After Petra, the big sights around here are often related to religious pilgrimages, for all three area religions, but especially for Christians. Mount Nebo is nearby, said to be the place where Moses was granted a view of the Holy Land. In Madaba we skipped the site where John the Baptist supposedly was beheaded.

* * * *

So this is it. Tomorrow, after one last ridiculous breakfast, we go to the airport, fly to Cairo, then spend a long day and night in the Cairo airport. Our flight takes off at 1:45 a.m., nonstop to Toronto.

We've been seeing Diego on the Dogtopia webcam almost every day. It's wonderful to see him. Dogtopia emailed to ask if they could increase his food -- he was looking too thin from all the exercise! He's having so much fun, I think he might be depressed when he comes home.

Photos from Madaba are here.

2.27.2017

amman

I'm writing this from the beautiful lounge of the Amman Marriott Hotel while drinking a Bailey's hot chocolate. Allan is drinking a Bailey's martini and working with the guidebook for tomorrow's adventure, the final day of the trip except for flying.

We decided not to do any sightseeing today, but rather to explore the city a bit. There are things to do here -- an archeology museum, a museum about the history of Jordan, several Roman-era ruins -- and if we were here for a week I'm sure we'd see them all. But in between Petra and Madaba, I thought we'd just get a feel for the city.

After a ridiculous breakfast, we took a cab to Rainbow Street. Breakfast is ridiculously huge and ridiculously expensive, but we're not in a neighbourhood where you can find a local breakfast shop -- and it could be that no such neighbourhood exists. I keep saying we should take a bag and collect food for lunch, but I don't think we'll actually do it. Although I'm not promising anything.

Jordan is a country of hills, and Amman is a city built on seven hills. There are tunnels and bridges for vehicles, and steep streets, often with steps, for pedestrians. Hills make for wonderful views, and every so often you get a glimpse of hills receding into the distance, each hill covered in sand-coloured houses.

The neighbourhood we landed in had a San Francisco vibe. There were interesting-looking local cafes, smoke shops clearly catering to a younger (and often female) crowd, and funky, brightly-painted storefronts. After a while, the streets grew narrower, and we picked our way down steps. There were steps on both sides of the street, with a very steep, narrow road between them. The streets were all clean, the tiny shops were all modern. This is a long way from Cairo.

When the road flattened out, I looked around and realized we had accidentally found our way back to the area of Dingy Hotel and the nice little walk we had taken our first night in town. We stopped on a corner for a fresh-squeezed juice. I pointed to pomegranates and oranges, and a man squeezed them on the spot. So delicious and super healthy, and also cheap. A bit later, we saw the store where we bought the nuts and candy; the owner (known as Nut Guy) recognized us and waved. Too funny.

We explored the area more. In between shops there are often little alleys (or laneways, in Canadian) where there are tiny shops and cafes, and the alley ends at stairs up to another street. There are many outdoor stands selling paperback books, which was nice to see. Most are in Arabic, but there are English editions of Harry Potter, some John Green titles, and some perennials like The Alchemist. We looked in some crazy souvenir shops selling weird, dusty old things, some bakeries, about a million shoe stores. It's really nice to walk around without fighting off men trying to "help" us, get us in a cab, get us in a boat, sell us a souvenir, or anything else for that matter.

Eventually we came upon something Allan really wanted to find, one of the stairways. This one has brightly painted steps, and dozens of clay flowerpots full of plants attached to the walls. People have signed and written quotes on the pots.

In the middle of the stairs is an entrance to Zajal, a huge, airy, space, a beautiful update on a traditional coffee shop. The menu has some traditional food, some fun snacks, "clay pot dishes," and alcohol-free cocktails. Small groups of young women, or mixed men and women, were eating or smoking sheesha.

Lonely Planet claimed we would see this in Cairo, but we never did -- anywhere in Egypt. The coffee houses were dark, all-male, uninviting (and often dirty) places. In Amman we've seen many modern, integrated coffee houses.

As one might expect in the capital city, the women here are modern and stylish, many with bright or patterned hijabs, and many with their heads uncovered. This was only the second day of the trip that I felt comfortable wearing short-sleeves, the other being in Petra.

After Zajal, we took a taxi back to the hotel. Everyone speaks English here, and all the food is European. The servers and hostesses all appear to be Thai or Vietnamese. Everyone asks if we're here on business or with a tour group. It's a bit weird, but I give Amman very high marks -- a nice city.

****

A few interesting English translations:

On a menu in Petra: "Beer out of al-kohool"

On a street-side menu in Petra: "Fish Fellate"

Above the storefront of a Rainbow Street pizza joint: "Wooden Pizza"