8.19.2017

what i'm reading: maximum security book club

I have an abiding interest in prison librarianship, and try to learn about it wherever I can. Whenever the OLA Superconference features a session on prison libraries, I attend. I'm always pleased to see how popular and well attended these sessions are.

Perhaps that should not surprise. In a sense, prison libraries epitomize librarian values -- the inherent value of reading, the power of self-education, the importance of finding the right reading material, the solace and companionship that reading can offer, the democratizing and liberating power of the library. And perhaps above all, the desire to bring resources to people who are marginalized and under-served.

Whether I'll ever work as a prison librarian or volunteer in a prison library remains to be seen. Prison libraries have been decimated by austerity budgets, and few people advocate for them.

In recent years a few narrative nonfiction books about prison libraries have been published. This is the first of a series of reviews about them. (The series will be very spread out!)

Mikita Brottman's Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison -- unlike most of the titles in her club's syllabus -- reads lightly and quickly. The reader also learns a bit about literature.

Those are the only positive things I can say about this book.

I don't usually write unfavourable reviews, in acknowledgement of how difficult it is to write a book, and in deference to varying tastes. Every book is not for every reader, and my opinion shouldn't stand in anyone else's way.

Occasionally, though, something must be said.

Brottman ran a book club in a prison in the US state of Maryland. She is not a librarian; she is a scholar and professor of literature. Perhaps this explains my frequent confusion, dismay, incredulity, and sometimes disgust at some of her choices. Librarians are all about matching readers with books. When we run book clubs, the members choose the books -- likely from a list of possible choices, but always with their full and active participation. Brottman came into the prison with a list of titles.

And what a list it was! First Brottman tells the story of the first time she read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as a student at Oxford University. She found it indecipherable. Completely unreadable. Only after one of her distinguished professors helped her -- and even then, after several readings -- did she understand and appreciate the book. And yet she chose Heart of Darkness for a group of men with limited reading skills, little reading experience, and no formal education -- and for their first meeting together!

Brottman never explains why she did this. I'm not sure if the reader is meant to laugh with her at her missteps and foibles? I just cringed.

After that disastrous first session, Brottman next assigns Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. This absolutely boggles my mind.

The men's reactions to their reading continually confounds and frustrates Brottman. She wants to teach literature as she is accustomed, with a deep analysis of language and themes. But the men view the stories and characters in terms of their own experiences. Like many readers, they expect books to be, in a sense, about themselves -- to offer insight or reflection or lessons. To be, as I frequently hear from teen readers, "relatable". But Brottman wants to teach "the text," as literary scholars are so fond of calling it. She fights a losing battle to try to make the men talk about the book in her own purist terms, repeatedly trying to get them to stop talking about their own lives. Only slowly and partially does she adjust her teaching methods to their needs.

Brottman comes off as spectacularly tone-deaf. When the men react to her book choices with either boredom or confusion, she lectures them. She dismisses their points of view, she makes jokes that mock and offend. She makes the men read Lolita and defends the book's central relationship as a love story! The men recognize Humbert Humbert for what he is -- and she tries to talk them out of it! Did this woman come into a men's prison with so little preparation that she doesn't know the prison status of child sexual abusers? Perhaps, because she also breaks a cardinal rule of all prison volunteering: after the book club ends, she continues her relationship with some of the men on the outside.

Before I read this book, I wondered if it would include some exaggerated claims of how the book club transformed lives. Reading can be a transformative experience, but participation in a book club is not going to repair the conditions or reverse the behaviour that gave rise to the men's incarceration.

I needn't have worried. The Maximum Security Book Club is not about prison life, and it's not about incarcerated men. It's not about the relationships that form through a book club, nor the effects of reading. It's about the author -- her thoughts, her reactions, her knowledge. Although Brottman holds up her working-class upbringing like a trophy for the reader to admire, she still comes off as a privileged white saviour looking for a novel experience at someone else's expense. She's slumming.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that their book club experience turned these men off from reading for the rest of their lives.

8.13.2017

join the ndp and vote for niki ashton: deadline aug 17

The deadline to join the NDP and vote for Niki Ashton is August 17.


Last night I saw something that shocked me, and today I did something I've never done before: I joined a political party. And I did it so I can cast my vote for Niki Ashton for leader of the federal NDP.

* * * *

I worked on Saturday, and was very busy, with zero time to check headlines or social media. After work, I was watching the Red Sox trounce the Yankees and idly tapping on my tablet, when I was stopped cold.

Heather Heyer was killed when a Nazi rioter
drove a car into the crowd.
I am not easily shocked. Perhaps I think I am shock-proof. But the spectacle of an angry mob carrying torches and Nazi banners, openly attacking a group of peaceful protesters, hit me like a gut punch.

I've been writing about the collapse of the US empire, the US becoming a third world country, the fascist shift, and so on, for a long time. It's not like the rise of the white supremacists came out of nowhere. And it's no surprise that police and local government allowed this to happen. So on the level of "this happened" -- no, it's not a shock. But emotionally, psychologically, even physically, the force and weight of it hit me. Men holding Nazi banners, chanting about Jews and Muslims. A peaceful protester and two others killed. Right now, in the country of my birth.

And from the White House, silence.

And from Ottawa, silence.

White Supremacists surrounded peaceful protesters
and attacked them with pepper spray and torches.
I have no illusions about the priorities of Canada's oil-rich federal government and the shirtless Prime Minister. But I imagined they had at least the veneer of humanity. Nope. It's more important to please the US than it is to speak out against white supremacy and Nazism. They might be only empty words, but Trudeau won't even speak them.

I watched the spectacle in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I felt sick. Not a figurative "this makes me sick," but a literal churning stomach, cold chills of fear, tears in my eyes. Wondering, What's next? Wondering, where are hundreds of thousands of Americans in the streets, shouting a huge, loud, collective NO! ?

* * * *

Some people think it's funny that the Nazis used
"tiki torches". I'm not laughing.
Despite the very justified focus on the current POTUS, the US has been moving in this direction for a long time. The spectacles we saw at Trump rallies did not materialize overnight, without context. An oligarchy completely unresponsive to the needs of its people, an economy based on the transfer of wealth from poorest to richest, no meaningful work, no social system for education, housing, and, until recently, health care -- a populace armed to the teeth, like its government -- xenophobic scapegoating -- and the legacy of racism that has never stopped, never even taken a breather: all this gave birth to what we're seeing now. I've seen some people on Facebook imagining (fantasizing) that if Hillary Clinton was POTUS, this might not be happening. One could just as easily fantasize that it would have happened the moment she was elected. The powderkeg would still exist, and the catalyst wouldn't be far behind. The Democrats certainly had no plans to reverse the course of the last 30 years.

The truth is, in the US, there was no choice. There's the party of cats or the party of cats.

Of the many things that attracted me to Canada, one of the strongest was the presence of an actual, viable third party, a party that more closely represented my values. But in recent years, the NDP has been disappointing, to put it mildly. The party was using the same playbook that ruined the Democrats, moving farther and farther to the right, hoping to capture the so-called centre -- a strategy sure to lose before it even gets started. It's been depressing. My activism has never been around party politics and elections, and the NDP's rightward shift pushed me even further away.

But people's movements have surged in recent years. People are fighting back. Occupy, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, The Fight for Fifteen -- activism around climate change -- the popularity of Bernie Sanders' platform -- union fightbacks -- all taken together, have created a groundswell. A context where real change might suceed. Where we might have hope.

And right now, in Canada, we do have hope. At last, there is someone running for NDP leadership who wants to recall the party to its roots: Niki Ashton.

From Ashton's website:
I am running because I believe we need a clear vision. We need fundamental change. We need to build the NDP as a movement for social, environmental, and economic justice.
The way forward for the NDP is clear. We must work tirelessly for true reconciliation with Indigenous people, for the protection and preservation of our environment, for working Canadians, for women, for people living with disabilities, for racial justice, for justice for transgender and non-binary people, for LGBTQ+ justice, and for the right to be who you are, and to love who you want to love. 
We must build a political movement that connects with the many Indigenous, racialized, student, environmental and labour movements that are driving progressive political change. We must move ahead with a positive agenda that tackles rising inequality and climate change. We must build a movement that has the strength of the people at its core. We must unite, and build people-centred policy as our foundation. As a party, we need to embrace the thousands of activists across this country who have paved the way for our movement. Their fight is our fight, and together, we are stronger.

I want people to know that we are in their corner, with every decision we make. I want Canadians to feel at home in the NDP because they see themselves reflected in the values and principles we fight for every single day.

It is time to be bold.
It is time to create the Canada we know is possible — we must accept nothing less.
It is time to address inequality in a real way, with real action.
I know we can do this.
I know that together, we can build a movement.
Today I realized that I must help Ashton build that movement. I need to exercise whatever power I have, to vote for Ashton for leader and to urge others to do the same.

August 17 is the last day to join the NDP in time to vote in the leadership election. You can do so here, from Ashton's own page, to show that you joined in order to support her.

Thanks to all my activist friends whose words and actions led me to this change! Solidarity always.

It's time!




8.08.2017

in which old photos make me think things

I've been scanning some old photos -- some of Allan and me through the years, others with my siblings at various ages -- and have been posting them on Facebook. This experience has led to two insights. The thoughts themselves aren't new, but this walk on memory lane has recalled and reinforced them.

Insight number one: my self-image was extremely distorted throughout my life. 

I thought I was fat and ugly. Yet there is evidence that that was not the case. I am now overweight, but that's a different story. This was a girl well within a normal, healthy weight and size range, thinking she was seriously overweight.

It was no surprise that many of my female Facebook friends related to this. We came up with the following list of reasons. The reasons are not ranked in order of importance; it's a big mix, a preponderance of evidence, as the legal phrasing goes.

1. Media. We are constantly barraged with images of what is supposed to be beauty perfection; most are completely unrealistic.

2. Friends and peers complaining they are fat, often people who are thinner than us.

3. Thoughtless comments from parents or other relatives.

4. A parent who constantly diets and talks about their size and/or weight.

5. Clothes manufactured with unrealistic size standards.

6. A sibling who was praised for her appearance, while many of us were praised for intelligence, cultivating the belief that a girl could be intelligent or attractive, but not both. Shorthand for this: I was "the smart one", she was "the pretty one".

7. Well-intentioned compliments about weight loss. ("You look great! Have you lost weight?")

Most first-world women have struggled with issues caused by a negative self-image, to varying degrees. It feels like part of being female. It can ruin lives. And it most certainly prevents us from leading happier, more fulfilling lives.

And I don't doubt that this is the case for men, too, perhaps for different reasons.

Insight number two: the future is unknown.

My first trip to Europe was in 1982. I graduated university, then spent the summer working to save money for the trip, and went with a female friend. We had open-ended air tickets and no idea how long our money would last.

I had dreamt of going to Europe, especially Paris, all through my teenage years. The art history courses I took in university fueled this into an obsession.

When I finally went, I ran around at high speeds, trying to see as much as I possibly could. I was sure this would be my only opportunity to travel in Europe, ever. I don't know if I actually verbalized this, but it was always my assumption, a constant. I could not foresee how it would be possible, what kind of life I might lead that would allow me to go to Europe more than once.

My trips to Europe so far:
1982: Brussels, London and day trips, Amsterdam, Paris and day trips, Rome, Florence, Venice, Lucerne (with NN)
1985: London and West Country (with NN and on my own)
1993: Paris, Chartres, points throughout Provence, Naples, Salerno, Rome, Florence, points throughout Tuscany, Venice, Verano, Bologna (with Allan)
1998: London, some West Country and Wales, Paris (with Allan)
2011: Ireland (with Allan)
[Sometime in here I made a rule that anytime we went to Europe, we would include Paris.]
2013: London, Paris, and points throughout Spain (with Allan)
2014: Paris, Giverny, Rouen (with my mother)

And of course this omits any non-European travel, itself a substantial list (although never nearly as long as I'd like).

My point is not how much I've travelled. My point is that we don't know where our lives will take us.

I had many life goals and fantasies that haven't come true, of course. Most notably, I am not a well-known author of young-adult novels. But the list of Things I Have Done That I Never Thought I'd Do is much longer.

8.04.2017

what i'm reading: city on fire

I finished City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg's astonishing debut novel, a few days ago, but stories from the book are still playing in mind. I initially didn't want to commit to reading a 900-page tome, but as I savoured the last scene, I was sorry to put it down.

City on Fire brings you to 1976-77 New York City, the summer of The Blackout, when the City famously went dark and infamously gave way to rioting and looting. It's the New York City of graffiti-covered subway cars, of brutal service cuts, unemployment, and street crime. It's also the New York City of the punk rock revolution, the birth of hip-hop, an exploding social scene of sex, drugs, and disco, of early gay liberation, of artistic flourishing. It's the New York City that lured young people who didn't conform to their small town's small-minded standards to stuff their belongings in a duffel bag and buy a one-way ticket on Greyhound. And it is -- as it always has been and always will be -- the New York City of stunning contrasts and great social divides, all thrown together and intersecting all the time.

Hallberg gives you all of it. The reader meets characters from vastly different experiences and social standings, each with their own present and past, each trying to find their way into a future. Each chapter is told from a different character's point of view. Not only does the point of view change with each chapter, but there are different timelines in play, too. As the characters' lives intersect (usually without their knowledge), a shape begins to form, a puzzle. There is a mystery, perhaps a few mysteries, that the reader can't solve until all the pieces fall into place.

Reading City on Fire, I was reminded -- strongly and often -- of the work of Charles Dickens: the sprawling ambition, the multiplicity of points of view, the intersecting lives, the City as almost a character in the book. It's a bold move for a contemporary author to make, and City on Fire is chock full of bold moves. Some of the timeline and character shifts left me mentally gasping. At times, a piece of mystery will resolve in one sentence; Hallberg trusts the reader to pay attention. The book is also subtly self-referential, as the City is described in ways that apply to the very book you're reading.

As I skimmed published reviews of the novel, I noticed that many reviewers thought the book was too long, that parts dragged, that it needed a good pruning. I strongly disagree: the length is essential to the book. How can you re-create the outsized City, with its millions of lives living in intersecting universes, in a mere 400 pages? The book is mammoth because the City is mammoth.

Hallberg's writing is richly descriptive and very precise. This, too, recalls a contemporary version of Dickens. While the reader is trying to solve the mystery of the plot, the characters are trying to resolve the mysteries of their lives -- their family secrets, their own pain, their contradictory and irascible love, their acceptance of themselves. These are complex matters that demand complex thought and writing. Perhaps some readers would tire of this, but I loved it.

This review in the New York Times mentions Don DeLillo's Underworld and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities as two antecedents of City on Fire. Well, there's New York, and there's a blackout, and there's great wealth and abject poverty. But Hallberg gives us something that neither of those works do, but that Dickens always did: humanity, hope, and a measure of redemption.

City on Fire joins E.B. White's Here Is New York, Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale and Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York on my indispensable New York City booklist. Read it as soon as you can.

7.31.2017

an open letter to loblaw: greed is not good -- especially for public relations

Loblaw Companies Limited
1 President's Choice Circle
Brampton, Ontario, L6Y 5S5
Attention: LCL Customer Relations Centre

Dear Loblaw Ltd.:

I am a Loblaw customer and I was extremely disappointed by recent public statements made by Loblaw CEO Galen Weston, Jr., regarding the proposed raise of the minimum wage in Ontario. Mr. Weston claimed that the proposed wage hikes will result in higher prices and more self-checkout aisles, and speaks about labour costs "ballooning" by $190 million.*

Mr. Weston clearly values Loblaw's shareholders more than it cares about its customers. When I spend my hard-earned money, I don't think it's too much to ask the store to provide check-out and bagging, and for there to be adequate staff on-hand to minimize time spent waiting in line. Instead, Mr. Weston implies that if the minimum wage is increased, I will be forced to provide his very profitable company with free labour by doing my own checkout.

When a company posts $990 million in profit in one year (2016), it is reasonable to expect it to raise employees' wages, provide more hours (which means better service for customers), and consistent scheduling.

I can imagine that Mr. Weston, who is the second-richest person in Canada, does not understand what it's like to (try to) survive on a part-time, minimum-wage job. Not only is the wage well below a basic standard of living, but hours are inadequate, ensuring the need for a second job. Inconsistent scheduling makes it impossible for workers to hold a second job -- or to attend school, which might increase their chances of ever earning more than minimum wage! By paying minimum wage and offering only precarious work, Loblaw contributes to poverty in Canada.

And then there's the company's image. From a public relations point of view, wouldn't it be smarter for Mr. Weston to champion the minimum-wage increase, and voice its concern for its employees, rather than whining about the cost of running his wildly profitable business? Mr. Weston would do well to listen to Toronto Star business columnist Jennifer Wells, who reminds him "that the company’s people are assets, not just a cost centre". (It's an excellent column: I hope Mr. Weston will read it.)

It's not too late for Mr. Weston to salvage the company's public image. I look forward to reading his retraction and apology, and Loblaw's support for more fair and livable employment laws in Ontario.

Sincerely,

Laura Kaminker
Mississauga, Ontario



* Although the word "ballooning" is not quoted directly, every media story about Mr. Weston's statement uses it -- not a coincidence. I was unable to locate the media release online.

------

Other ways to contact Loblaw are listed here.

7.25.2017

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #24

I have a TIHATL double-header today, plus a bonus round.

A customer asked for something by Omar Tyree. We had only one copy of one title, and that was in a different branch. I asked if I could get her something with a similar vibe, and she was up for it. Turns out she has read all of Tyree's work -- she loves it and wanted to re-read. So yes, more authors like that would be good.

I had never heard of Tyree, but Google told me he is considered an urban griot. (I see by the author's website that he is much more than that, but I was specifically looking at his fiction.) "Urban griot" made me think of Junot Diaz, and with a bit more searching I also found Akhil Sharma. She took one book by each author -- so I've already struck gold -- and then I thought of Walter Mosley.

I asked, "Do you like mysteries?" She said, sure, why not, I'm always looking for good things to read. "Have you read Walter Mosely?" Nope, she doesn't know him.

As we're walking over to the mystery section, I'm talking up Mosley, and at the same time I'm thinking, I hope she doesn't think I'm giving her these books because she's black. So now I'm having two conversations. Speaking to the customer, I'm all chipper and bright -- "...great characters, a real "street" vibe..." -- and speaking to myself I'm second-guessing. Oh shit, I hope this isn't offensive... Should I say, I'm not recommending this because you're black? No, that would be even worse...

The customer was very friendly and appreciative. She left with three books by three authors that were new to her, so that is a very successful readers' advisory interaction. Plus, I told my inner voice, Diaz and Sharma are not African American. Inner voice pointed out that all three authors are people of colour...

(I wasn't seriously worried. Just some thoughts.)

(I haven't read Junot Diaz since his debut "Drown," a very long time ago. I put The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on my list.)

* * * * *

A customer took a chair that staff use and brought it over to a table, where she was helping supervising her husband on the computer. The chair she took is not quite behind the information desk, but nearby. Pages use it while they sort books on carts.

My colleague told the customer that the chair was for staff, and pointed out which chairs she could use -- and there were many of them.

Ridiculous customer: No one's using it now!

Library worker: Not right at this moment, but the staff who needs that chair will be back in a few minutes. You can use any of those chairs over by the window. Would you like me to help you get one?

RC, pointing to the staff chairs behind the information desk: I want one of those chairs!

LW: I'm sorry, those are not for customer use. They are for staff use. You can use any of the chairs over th--

RC: I have a back problem! I cannot carry chairs! You are being so rude and unhelpful!

LW: I'm sorry you feel that way. Would you like me to--

RC: I want to speak to the supervisor!

LW: That would be me. I think you'll find that anyone you speak to will tell you the same thing. I can give you the manager's name and--

RC:  Give me that! I want to speak to the manager!

LW: Here is her card. She will be in--

RC: Where is she! I want to speak to the manager!

LW: The manager is not here in the evening. She will be in tomorr--

RC: Where is she! I want to speak to the manager!

LW gives RC our manager's card, RC stomps off to where she's sitting -- about 2 metres away -- and calls. The call, of course, goes straight to LW at the info desk. LW acts like she doesn't know who the caller is, and puts RC through to the manager's voicemail.

RC leaves an angry message about how library staff prevented her from using her preferred chair and will be responsible if she experiences back pain. Later that evening, we see her leaning all the way over with her elbows on the table. Not a position usually associated with back pain. Dozens of empty chairs are nearby.

* * * * *

The best thing about summer at the library: teens looking for summer reading! There are more adults looking for reading material for the summer, too, but the teens are on a mission. The youth area is full of teens combing the shelves on their own, but my favourites are the ones who approach the desk: "Do you know any good books I can read?" The hot titles and top authors are all out, so it requires skilled and enthusiastic library staff to put books in their eager hands. And this, my friends, is the absolute best part of my job.

7.23.2017

why do we need to say black lives matter? a brief and partial history lesson

The African American experience in Los Angeles County, California: a brief and selected timeline of sorts.*

From 1940-1960, thousands of African Americans migrated from Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and other southern states to California, hoping to find decent jobs, affordable housing, and equality of opportunity.

California was not quite as welcoming as advertised. Housing was strictly segregated. The Los Angeles Police Department under the governance of Chief William Parker functioned as an occupying army in all-Black neighbourhoods. The only contacts between the all-white police force and the black residents of L.A. were roundups, traffic stops, arrests, humiliations, and beatings.

August 1965. With the community at a boiling point, a traffic stop gone awry precipitates the uprising known as the Watts Riots. During the riots, Parker says: "These people came in and flooded the community. We didn't ask these people to come here."

("These people" were Americans, who supposedly enjoy a Constitutional right to travel freely between states. Author Walter Mosely on the Watts Riots: "Someone asked me, did all blacks feel this way? I told him, 99% of us do, but the other 1% is really angry.")

1982. Under Police Chief Daryl Gates, the occupation expands. When the LAPD is questioned about the many African Americans who died in police chokeholds, Gates says that African Americans were more likely "to die from chokeholds because their veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people."**

From 1987 to 1991, Gates uses "Operation Hammer" to supposedly clean up gang violence. With no attempt to speak with or involve the community, the LAPD deploys thousands of police to African American and Latino neighbourhoods. Families are rounded up, pushed face-down in the dirt, humiliated, demeaned, arrested, beaten, with little regard for evidence. Tens of thousands are arrested; but in the majority of cases, no charges are filed.

August 1, 1988. As part of Operation Hammer, police forcibly enter apartments at 39th Street and Dalton Avenue, holding residents at gunpoint while they vandalize and destroy everything in the homes. They smash appliances, mirrors, toilets; they shred clothes and children's toys; they rip up furniture and family photos. Police spray-paint "LAPD Rules" and other slogans on the apartment walls.

The raid nets six ounces of marijuana and less than one ounce of cocaine.**

March 3, 1991. A taxi driver named Rodney King is pulled over after leading LAPD on high-speed chase. A group of officers surround King, beat him with metal batons and kick him as he lay writhing on the ground. In an age before cell phones videos, a neighbour videotapes the beating and sends it to a local news station. The beating is shown continually on TV news. Four officers are charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. The defense claims that the beating was a function of the city's ban on police chokeholds.

Despite the irrefutable evidence that all of America had seen day in and day out, none of the four officers are convicted of anything.

It is often said that the 1992 uprising/riots followed the Rodney King beating. This is incorrect. The riots were in response to the Rodney King verdict. The African American community trusted in the judicial system, believing that this time, with incontrovertible proof, there would be justice. I think of the Rodney King case whenever I hear Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll": "Now is the time for your tears."

March 16, 1991. Soon Ja Du, a shopkeeper, incorrectly assumes that 15-year-old Latasha Harlins is stealing a bottle of orange juice. A scuffle ensues. As Latasha walks away, Du produces a gun and shoots the teenager in the back of the head, killing her.

Security footage captures the incident, leaving no doubt that Du's claims of self-defense were false.

Du is fined $500 and sentenced to 400 hours of community service.

This is just some context. Context before Oscar Grant, before Michael Brown, before Trayvon Martin, before Eric Garner, before Philando Castile. Before these people in 2015, and these people in 2016, and these people, so far this year. One American city, and a few famous incidents.

If you call the US a police state, you'll be accused of hyperbole. "Go live in [current hated country] and see what a real police state looks like!" Or closer to home, just be black or brown and live in the wrong zip code.

------

* This post was inspired by watching "OJ: Made In America," a five-part documentary series, part of ESPN's excellent "30 For 30" docs. I may write about the OJ movie another time. This post is not intended for discussion of anything OJ-related.

** One of the US war resisters in Canada recognized army raids on Iraqi homes as a version of the police raids that were a regular feature of his neighborhood in East L.A. From that similarity, he began to see the US as an occupying power.

*** Gates is often heralded for ushering in the era of SWAT policing and the DARE anti-drug program. The former has escalated police violence while failing to protect communities, while the latter was a colossal waste of money, finally discontinued in 2002 after all studies proved it was a total failure.

7.14.2017

what i'm reading: pit bull: the battle over an american icon

If you have an opinion about pitbulls, chances are good that it's based on myth, misinformation, and even disinformation. I know a good deal about dogs, and I thought I knew a lot about pitbulls, yet I was constantly amazed and enlightened by Bronwen Dickey's Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.

Here are some of the things you will learn if you read this book.

There is no agreement on what a pitbull is.

No one can correctly identify a dog's breed-mix based on the dog's appearance, including experts.

Many or most media stories about pitbulls are based on uncorroborated heresay and myths, and many are actually fiction.

Many dog-bite incidents reported as involving pitbulls actually involved Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Poodles, and other breeds.

Accurate statistics about dog bites, especially those that account for severity, do not exist.

There is nothing special about a pitbull's jaws or the strength of its bite. In fact, no test exists to measure the strength of a dog's bite, thus "facts" about a pitbull's bite being x pounds of pressure compared to other dogs' bites, are pure fiction.

Reading this book, you will consider connections between the media's portrayal of pitbulls and racism, between fear of pitbulls and fear of urban youth, the dynamics of a social phenomenon known as "moral panic", and how the moral panic over pitbulls mirrors the one about crack cocaine. And did you know that in pre-Civil War America, dogs of slaves were confiscated and put to death, as were dogs in Jewish homes in Nazi Germany?

All this might be merely interesting, or perhaps fascinating, if ignorance and moral panic didn't inform law-making. Sadly and infuriatingly, this is not the case. Thousands of dogs labeled as pitbulls that never harmed anyone or showed any signs of aggression have been killed. Thousands of people were forced to choose between their beloved dogs and homelessness, when any dog deemed a pitbull was banned from most public housing and much private housing. This is not about a dangerous dog being euthanized. This is the wholesale round-up and (attempted) eradication of dogs based on appearance only.

In one of the many insightful looks into media coverage of dog-bite stories, Dickey uncovers the total lack of credentials, expertise, and experience of the owner of a professional-looking website called dogsbite.org. She notes that on one side of the so-called debate are the Center for Disease Control, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the National Animal Care and Control Association, the Animal Behavior Society, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. and all but one animal welfare organization. On the other side, the owner of an attractive website with unsourced claims. But the media, in the name of "balance", will give these two sides equal weight, without questioning where dogsbite.org gets its information. The answer is: they make it up.

Dickey introduces the reader to two important, remarkable organizations: the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, now called Beyond Fences, and a Humane Society program called Pets for Life. In the past, the only thing animal control organizations could do for neglected dogs was remove them from homes -- a chilling echo of how children were removed from certain homes under the guise of protection. These two groups help people keep their animals, by offering free veterinary care, free quality dog food, and free dog-care education. Because -- go figure -- it turns out low-income families love their animals just as much as affluent families. The descriptions of dogs and people whose lives have been transformed by the dedicated people of these organizations are the most beautiful and hopeful parts of this book.

Dickey introduces the reader to many amazing people -- dedicated rescuers and trainers, as well as people who are amazing for all the wrong reasons -- amazingly ignorant, willfully ill-informed, and close-minded, determined to rid the world of one supposed breed based on a refusal to acknowledge facts.

Dickey's book is a tour de force of research and synthesis. It's not so much a book about dogs, as a book of history, sociology, science, and information studies where dogs are the organizing principle. I wish that everyone who has an opinion about pitbulls was required to read this book.

7.09.2017

in which telehealth sends me to the emergency room and i wonder why. or, what's the deal with telehealth?

I used Telehealth for the first time this past week, Ontario's call centre for health questions. I thought it was a great service, but now that I've spoken to others about my experience, I'm confused. Is it true Telehealth sends everyone to Urgent Care or the Emergency Room?

USians, you may marvel at the beauty of universal public health care.

* * * *

It was the Monday after Canada Day, and I had been sick all weekend. My family doctor's office always has an on-call doctor or nurse-practitioner, but the office was closed. I had a feeling I should see a doctor, in case I needed antibiotics.

I Googled to find the number, and read this on the Telehealth website.
Call Telehealth for medical advice
Telehealth Ontario is a free, confidential service you can call to get health advice or information. A Registered Nurse will take your call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 
  • Toll-free: 1-866-797-0000
  • Toll-free TTY: 1-866-797-0007
Telehealth Ontario is only offered over the phone. Email advice is not available. 
How it works
When you call, a Registered Nurse will ask you to answer questions so they can assess your health problem and give you advice.
Telehealth Ontario nurses will not diagnose your illness or give you medicine. They will direct you to the most appropriate level of care or may put you in contact with a health professional who can advise you on your next steps.
The nurse will help you decide whether to: 
  • handle a problem yourself
  • visit your doctor or nurse practitioner
  • go to a clinic
  • contact a community service
  • go to a hospital emergency room
Who can call
Anyone can call Telehealth Ontario to ask a health-related question. This service is: 
  • confidential –  you may be asked to provide your health card number, but it is not required
  • provided in both English and French, with translation support for some other languages
  • free for all users
What you can ask
You can contact Telehealth Ontario when you have health-related questions or concerns about: 
  • illness or injury that may need medical care
  • illnesses that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • food and healthy living
  • teen health and issues
  • depression, suicide or other mental health concerns
  • medications and drug interactions
  • breastfeeding
First a recorded announcement told me what was going to happen, and how to access emergency care. This part was kind of long; I wondered if most people would listen to that much information.

Then an intake person came on the line. She asked me a series of questions, then said I would speak to the registered nurse on duty. The wait would be about 20 minutes, and I could either stay on hold or she could call me back.

Fifteen minutes later, the nurse called. I told her what I was experiencing, and she asked me a series of questions.

When she was finished, she said, "Right now, when this call is finished, you should go the emergency room." I was so surprised, and asked if that was really necessary. "Yes. You must go. If you have a respiratory infection, while you wait to see a doctor, it will get worse. You can end up with bronchitis or pneumonia, and both are serious, especially if you already have respiratory issues. Will you go to the emergency room right away?"

The nurse also said I could use my inhaler (puffer) more often. I'm new to puffers and didn't realize that. But she wanted me to assure her that I would go to the emergency room.

Me: "If a nurse is telling me I should go, I guess I should."

Nurse: "Not just a nurse -- a panel of 12 doctors. A panel of 12 doctors created these interview questions, and based on your answers, you need to go to the emergency room."

I was highly skeptical, because I suspected I didn't have bronchitis. I didn't have either of the two classic symptoms, shortness of breath and chest pain. But the nurse was so insistent... so, despite my skepticism, I woke up Allan, and off we went.

There is an Urgent Care clinic in my area, and I knew that was more appropriate than the actual Emergency Room.

We waited three hours in UC. A doctor listened to my breathing, told me to use my puffer, and sent me home. The interaction with the doctor took 2-3 minutes.

I was annoyed at myself for going.

Allan and I talked about how you can't base your decision on an unknown outcome. If it turns out something is wrong, you're glad you went. If it turns out that you didn't need antibiotics or anything else, you feel stupid, like you should have known to stay home. Obviously you can't know the outcome until you go, so you have to go.

Two days later, I was still sick, plus I thought I might need a doctor's note for work. I called our health centre, made an appointment for the on-call nurse-practitioner, and was seen immediately. She listened to my breathing much more carefully than the UC doctor, and asked me more questions. She concurred -- wait it out. If there's no fever, green phlegm, chest pains, or shortness of breath, just use the puffer and wait it out.

When I told her that Telehealth told me to go to the ER, she said, "They tell a lot of people that. I think it's a liability issue."

Later in the week, I mentioned to a friend that Telehealth sent me to UC, she said the same thing: "That's what they do." We were with a group of people, and everyone seemed to agree that Telehealth recommends the ER or UC to cover themselves. What if they tell you to wait, and your condition worsens? What if you have a respiratory crisis, and it comes out that they told you to stay home and not worry?

Is this true? If so, what's the point of Telehealth? Actual question, not sarcasm.

Also, why didn't the Telehealth nurse ask if there was an UC facility near me? She only said ER. If I hadn't known the difference between UC and ER, I would have diverted ER care -- plus probably waited much longer, since I would be lower down on the triage scale in ER.


a must-read if you're responding to ignorance and bigotry about omar khadr's settlement

In case everyone hasn't seen this yet, written by someone named Ben Feral Selinger.
July 6

Okay, I'm fucking sick of the idiocy and done with writing a diatribe every single time a friend posts about how they're upset that Trudeau is giving a terrorist $10m. You people are.... wilfully ignorant and hypocritical. Here's why. (And I thoroughly suggest reading the entire post. If you know me, you know I'm neither stupid, nor an apologist. I am pure fucking science, and this post is such. Read it before making an ass of yourself by posting about how we just gave a terrorist money).

The story (the facts we know).

* Canadian born Khadr was taken to Afghanistan at age 9, by his father. We don't know if he wanted to go, and we don't know why they went. There has been zero evidence put forth to suggest the trip had anything to do with terrorism. Regardless, as he was only 9, he had no choice in the matter.

* Khadr, aged 15, was found in critical condition following a firefight. The mission debrief report filed by the US troops stated that a middle aged man threw a grenade, which killed one US soldier. The grenadier was shot in the head and confirmed killed.

* Khadr was taken to Guantanamo Bay prison. No charges were filed against him at that time.

* Several years later, formal charges were filed. These charges were technically not even charges of war crimes, as if they were true, Khadr would be considered an enemy combatant during a time of war, and thus everything he was accused of doing, was legal under rules of engagement. He was denied access to a lawyer at this point and no trial date was set. He was held in detention and tortured for nearly 10 years.

* Nearly a decade later, an addendum to the original mission debrief was submitted, which identified the grenadier as Khadr by name. The original report was not rescinded. No one knows who made the addendum. No US personnel present during the firefight confirms the addendum. (at least I've not been able to find any).

* A week later, Khadr is offered a plea deal. The terms of the deal were to admit guilt to all charges and serve a few more years in a Canadian prison, or refuse to admit guilt and be denied trial indefinitely. (the latter portion is not confirmed by the US government, but let's be realistic here...)

* Khadr takes the plea deal, is transferred to Canada.

* Khadr sues the Canadian government for their involvement in his illegal detention, torture, and lack of a trial.

All of the above is true as far as anyone knows. That is the official story, from both the Canadian and US governments. They have said straight out that Khadr would not be offered a trial unless he took the plea deal. Just let that sink in for a moment.

Now let me ask you a question.

As a Canadian, what do you stand for? Do you believe that you, as a Canadian, have the right to be presumed innocent, until proven guilty, as well as the right to a fair and quick trial? I know this is hard for many of you to consider without jumping to "oh, but he's a terrorist, so fuck him, he's a traitor and doesn't deserve anything", but we'll get to that in a minute. Seriously consider this. Do you believe you have, as a Canadian, the inalienable right to everything laid out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

If you do, but still think Khadr does not, because he is a terrorist, let me ask you; "How do you know he is guilty?" There was no trial for 10 years, and he was only offered a trial on the condition that he plead guilty. How do we, as Canadians, determine guilt? Have you read and understood the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? It's entire purpose is precisely to ensure that what happened to Khadr, is not allowed to happen. Period.

Now I know many of you still can't get past the "but he's a traitor so he doesn't deserve a trial" even though neither you, nor me, nor the US or Canadian government were able to provide ANY evidence whatsoever, of his guilt (no evidence was submitted during his trial, presumably because none exists), but that doesn't matter. Let me explain the problem to you.

You are worried that terrorists are trying to take away your freedoms as a Canadian right? They're trying to force their way of life upon us and we as Canadians, won't stand for that right?

Do you see where I'm going here? Presuming Khadr's guilt, with no evidence and without trial, is precisely what the terrorists want to do to Canada. Isn't that your concern? Does it not strike you then, that by saying that Khadr doesn't deserve a fair trial because he is a terrorist, with absolutely no evidence, nor a trial to prove the charges, that you are doing precisely what you are worried the terrorists are trying to do do us? A presumption of guilt, no trial, a decade of detention and torture. Is that not EXACTLY what you are worried terrorists are trying to do to us?

At this point, I don't think any of us should even be concerned about Khadrs innocence or guilt. He is inconsequential at this point. The REAL concern for all Canadians, is that our government denied a Canadian citizen his inalienable rights, guaranteed to him under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They did EXACTLY what you are worried the terrorists are trying to do. If Khadr was guilty, a trial probably would have proven such, so why was he denied a trial?

For your information, the Canadian government did not simply offer up an apology and $10m for no reason. They were sued. Khadr filed a civil suit with the supreme court of Canada, and that court found in favour of Khadr, in that the Canadian government was in breach of Canadian and International law. Over half the money awarded will be going toward legal fees.

Think about it this way. Your government, was just successfully sued for war crimes. Crimes they committed not only against Khadr, but against the entire Canadian public. They assured us that we would all be given a fair trial, but now we know that is not true. They assured us that we will always be presumed innocent until proven guilty. We know that is not true. They took your money, money which could have been spent on building half a hospital or something, and spent it instead, on committing war crimes, and crimes directly against the Charter for which our country stands.

Now I don't know if Khadr is innocent or guilty and I don't know if that money will end up right back in the middle east, but before you get upset about that, I want you to consider this: Had the Canadian government offered Khadr a fair trial, regardless of his guilt, there would have been no civil suit and we'd have $10.5m more Canadian Pesos to spend on Moose shirts, or maple syrup flavoured hockey sticks.
All they had to do, was abide by our own legal doctrine, and this whole mess would have never happened.

In summation:

If you believe Khadr did not deserve a fair and quick trial, you are not Canadian. You do not stand for what Canada stands for. You are saying very clearly, that you don't care about evidence, treating people (who we presume are innocent until proven guilty) with basic decency, or your own or anyone else's right to a fair trial. You are, quite literally, openly supporting about half of Sharia law. You fuckwits.

Addendum: Hey guys. I had no intention of this post reaching such a wide audience. It was really just directed at my fellow redneck buddies (all very excellent folk but who I felt could benefit from the data). I've adjusted some of the language to suit a wider audience.

I appreciate the feedback (surprisingly generally positive), but bear in mind that with a post this widely shared, I cannot respond to the thousands of PM's flying at me. Feel free to re-share the post, or just copy/paste to your own feed to keep the conversation going. I absolutely do not need any personal attribution.
Thank you, Ben.

7.08.2017

adventures in streaming: tubi, dick cavett, and the manster

The Roku streaming device gives you access to thousands of apps... most of which are completely useless.

That doesn't mean I don't love Roku. I do! But we use it almost exclusively to watch Netflix and the Red Sox, and to access downloaded files on the TV. We've also installed a few other apps, most of which we rarely or never touch: PBS, Democracy Now!, Google Play, National Film Board, a cooking channel or two. Sometimes I page through the available apps, install one, try it, then immediately remove it.

There are dozens of apps for movies and TV shows. Some are the streaming option you get when you already have a network or cable channel. Some have expensive monthly fees, others are expensive pay-per-view, and lots are free. If the description says "classic movies" read "public domain". Classic or contemporary, there may be one or two movies of interest, then a whole lot of filler.

One popular free movie app is Crackle, owned by Sony to stream their own content. I installed Crackle because it had one movie I wanted to see that I couldn't find anywhere else. We found the embedded advertising (which you can't skip) too intrusive, almost as bad as watching commercial television. I removed Crackle, but it wouldn't unsubscribe me, and I finally had to kill-file their emails. When I checked back recently, they no longer even have that one movie.

We recently had better luck with TubiTV. It's also free, and so far, the ads are only at the beginning, and it's not too annoying to wait through them (on mute, of course). So far Tubi has given us two gems.

One is the old Dick Cavett show. Cavett was known to be a thoughtful host who did lengthy, in-depth interviews, sometimes featuring one person for the entire show. He was also really into great music. There are performances by and/or interviews with Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and others, an impressive list.

From the movie "Janis: Little Girl Blue," an excellent biopic of Janis Joplin that I saw on Netflix, I learned about her connection with Cavett. I was once obsessed with all things Janis Joplin, and still love and admire her, so I was excited to see her appearances on The Dick Cavett Show available on Tubi.



There are also interviews with famous writers, comedians, actors, athletes, politicians -- a wide swath of interesting people. Check out this episode list, it's pretty amazing.

Tubi also has a "Cult Favorites" category, on which I found my favourite B movie of all time: The Manster. I'm not especially knowledgeable about B movies, but I watched a lot of old movies when I was a kid, the good with the bad. (This is in the dark ages when we watched whatever the networks and weird local stations aired.) I've seen The Day the Earth Stood Still, Night of the Living Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and all the other big B movies from that era, multiple times. My favourite is The Manster.



In The Manster, an American journalist goes to Japan to interview a scientist rumoured to be experimenting with youth serums. In his secret mountain laboratory, the scientist keeps various creatures locked in cages. (We later learn that one of the creatures used to be his wife.) Scientist secretly injects journalist, which causes a second head to grow out of his shoulder. The second head is evil and causes the transformed journalist to murder people.

After a manhunt, as the police close in on the two-headed journalist, the suspense builds to the shocking conclusion. With the manster standing behind a tree, we hear a giant tearing sound, like the world's biggest velcro strip being opened. Tearing, screaming, tearing, screaming... the monster rips apart from the man! Interestingly, both man and monster now have two arms and two legs. Police kill the murdering monster and the journalist is carried off on a stretcher.

There are also some riveting subplots, featuring the doctor and journalist drinking and carousing, the doctor's assistant falling in love with the journalist, and the journalist's wife trying to win him back from his new profligate life. The doctor's assistant ends up in a volcano, courtesy of the newly liberated monster.

I was so pleased to see The Manster on Tubi that we watched it straight through, something I haven't done since I was in my pre-teen years. It's a classic B movie combo of wild histrionics, meaningless cliches, giant plot holes, and bad lighting. But the real reason to watch are the awesome special effects. I swear you can see the strap that's holding the extra head on the actor's shoulder.




Before writing this post, I didn't even know The Manster was a famous B movie! I found it on many best-of lists. There's even an action figure.


7.07.2017

happy strike-iversary!






The City of Mississauga has a community recognition program, through which community groups can have their banner fly at City Hall for a day. When the program was announced, I said to a few of my union sisters, "I know a flag I'd like to see there...". I was only joking -- but they took me seriously! This morning, to the astonishment of many, the beautiful pink CUPE 1989 banner is flying beside Mississauga City Hall!

This week marks one year since the members of CUPE Local 1989, Mississauga Library Workers, walked off their jobs and onto the picket lines. It was the first strike in our local's history and the first strike against the City of Mississauga.

I am a member and now the president of Local 1989. In the past year, I've been invited to speak on panels, in conferences and conventions, in rallies, meetings, and gatherings of labour activists. Our local was honoured at the CUPE Ontario convention, and featured in a conference called "Building Strong Locals," held in Halifax. Everybody wants to hear how we built a winning strike, and it's been my great honour to share my reflections.

I never get tired of talking about the gains we made, especially for our lowest-paid members, and about how the strike transformed lives. But except to my partner and a few others, I don't talk about how the strike and my union work effects me personally.

Leading the bargaining team, the strike, and our union has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I love being a librarian, but even that is far outweighed by the satisfaction I find from my union work. Leading our team through bargaining and through the strike used -- and tested -- everything I had. It felt like all my experience, all my knowledge, and all my skills, from every thread of my life, had come together for this purpose. That was extremely exciting and energizing.

It also came at the right time in my life. I'm less volatile, more focused; I have a longer fuse, and a good deal more common sense. Dealing with the physical and mental limitations from my health issues was not always easy, but I'd rather struggle with getting enough rest at 55 than popping off in tirades at 25. (I did pop off once or twice in bargaining. Hey, I'm entitled to some fun!)

Our union continues to thrive. We're enforcing the terms of our collective agreement, protecting gains we have made, and always, always, always striving to engage our members. We're also identifying and developing future leaders, so the gains we've made don't unravel when the current team steps away.

I've made great friendships. Like my comrades from the War Resisters Support Campaign, these friends are from greatly diverse backgrounds and lives, linked by our belief and commitment to this work.

Tonight, members of CUPE 1989 will gather for our "strike-iversary," to reminisce about the experience and reflect on what we gained, how we've changed, and what lies ahead.

7.06.2017

the politics of the hardboiled detective novel

I love these old covers!
Last year, I blogged about a wonderful essay by Raymond Chandler called "The Simple Art of Murder", written in 1950. Reading that, I realized that I knew the work of both Chandler and Dashiell Hammett -- the originators of the hardboiled detective genre -- only through film adaptations. I hadn't read any of their novels. To remedy that, I borrowed several titles by each from the library.*  (I also plan to read some of the giants of the noir novel, having seen the classic film adaptations of their work: James M. Cain, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson.)

I read Hammett's Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon, and Chandler's The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. If I didn't have so much other reading pressing on me, I would have read many more. I loved everything about these books.

The writing is simple but vivid and evocative. The characters are interesting and multi-dimensional. The twisting plots are full of surprises. And above all, the protagonists -- the detectives -- are the perfect anti-heroes.

In detective movies and TV shows, the character of the detective him- or herself is paramount. If I like the detective, I'll follow him anywhere. If the detective rubs me the wrong way, it's a no-go, no matter how good the writing or acting or plots might be. Philip Marlowe (Chandler) and Sam Spade (Hammett) are as good as they get. It didn't even bother me that as I read, I could only see Humphrey Bogart in these roles. The casting of those famous films was perfect; my mental image of Bogart, who I love, only added to the enjoyment.

In his seminal essay, Chandler describes his detectives like this.
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.
In an interesting bit of self-consciousness in The Big Sleep, Chandler has Marlowe describe his own role, and the hardboiled novel itself.
I'm not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance. I don't expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it. If you think there is anybody in the detective business making a living doing that sort of thing, you don't know much about cops. 
I also loved the politics of these books. Of course hardboiled detective novels are not political per se, but Hammett's and Chandler's work have a clear, consistent political and social point of view. Spade and Marlowe are working class guys, and the reader sees everything through their working-class eyes.

In fact, class consciousness underpins everything in these novels. Throughout, there is a deep empathy for the working person, the underling, the regular Joe or Jane, and a consistent assumption that the odds are always stacked against them. Spade and Marlowe's work takes them into both dark underworlds and opulent mansions. They are equally themselves anywhere -- because they are men of integrity, without pretense -- but only the mansion will elicit scorn and contempt. The sad underworlds are more likely to evoke pity, and an understanding of why ordinary people may be driven to make bad decisions in an unjust world. Even in the criminal underworld, it's the little guy who takes the fall, while the rich and powerful do the damage and enjoy the good life.

There's a special place for the police in these novels, and it is not on a pedestal. Spade and Marlowe harbor a deep distrust of the police, and believe that in order to find justice, one must work outside the system, because the system is always corrupt.

In a world where the working class is always on the defensive, a man with a bit of power might just be tempted to overcompensate -- and we usually see police through this lens. Cops must be distrusted because they do the bidding of the ruling class. A good cop must prove himself to be one; he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt. Good cops are rare, but in this world, good men and women of any station are always rare.

Towards the end of The Big Sleep, a decent police captain explains:
I'm a copper. Just a plain ordinary copper. Reasonably honest. As honest as you could expect a man to be in a world where it's out of style. That's mainly why I asked you to come in this morning. I'd like you to believe that. Being a copper I like to see the law win. I'd like to see the flashy well-dressed muggs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred hard guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. That's what I'd like. You and me both lived too long to think I'm likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide, green and beautiful U.S.A. We just don't run our country that way.

The edition in our library.
Some might find these books sexist, as women are often portrayed as deceitful and dangerous, but that's not my reading. The women of Chandler and Hammett are not helpless ragdolls in need of rescue; they're not dependent on men for identity or status. They are free agents -- free to love, free to act on lust, to lie, to murder, but always free to make their own choices. The women of the hardboiled mystery are not be trusted -- just like the men. Both men and women do stupid things under the influence of love or lust, Marlowe and Spade included.

Men and women, working class or ruling class, guilty or innocent -- character traits cross all lines. There is honour and deceit on all sides. There is abuse of power everywhere. There is deep sorrow, and there is addiction. Indeed, I came to see alcohol almost as a character in these books.

At bottom, the hardboiled mystery, at least as practiced by the masters, is a study in power. The upper class, the criminals, the cops, the guards -- everyone is trying to get power, to use it, and to keep it. Only an honest man or woman cares more about doing the right thing than about power.

That's why class consciousness permeates everything: because the playing field is grossly tilted. The ruling class and their minions always have a giant head start. That's why the detective needs to stand up for the little guy. It's also why the detective hero must be wily and super-smart, why he needs to work outside the system, why he must often consider the means against the ends. He is a justice warrior amid an universal imbalance of power.

* Working in a library has greatly expanded my reading. More on that another day.

7.05.2017

the great whole foods experiment of 2017

In our home, shopping at Whole Foods was once reserved for special dinners or used a stop-gap during an extremely busy week. Then slowly, over time, it became habit -- and a big one. For a long time now, we've had two regular shopping days each week, one at Loblaws and one at Whole Foods. Sometimes we end up at Whole Foods multiple times in one week.

This has been expensive, of course, but I felt it was worth spending more for better quality, and even more so for convenience. Because of Whole Foods' prepared food, we've been able to spend less time on food preparation, but still eat healthfully. Where prepared food in most supermarkets consists of rotisserie chicken and mayonnaisey pasta salads, Whole Foods carries an array of fresh, healthy, delicious -- expensive -- choices. Over time we relied on this more... and more.

I did determine that some prepared food was actually no more expensive than if I had made it myself: see my post about Roman tuna salad. Now I suspect that tuna salad is either a loss leader, or an outlier.

Several months ago, Whole Foods' prices shot up. A bag of groceries that once cost $65 now runs $95 or as much as $120. I rationalized it for a while, but even I, the Queen of Rationalization, can no longer ignore the obvious. But what do we do instead? What did we do before Whole Foods came to Mississauga...? The answer is: lots of different things that all involve more effort and less variety.

Hence the experiment. We won't shop at Whole Foods for one month, then we can decide if the money we don't spend is worth the effort we do spend. This also has an added benefit: the owner of Whole Foods is notoriously anti-union, so this is an opportunity to align my spending with my principles a bit more.

7.04.2017

memories of bacon

Do you watch Aziz Ansari's show "Master of None"? I like it. It's not zany or wacky; it doesn't try so hard to be funny, which I find annoying in so many TV comedies. Parts of the show are funny, but parts are earnest, and interesting. It's not sappy, but it's not afraid to be a bit serious.

In the episode we just watched, we see Dev, the main character played by Ansari, as a child, encountering bacon for the first time. He's at the home of a friend, and when his mom calls, he innocently tells her that he's eating bacon. Mom reminds the young Dev that Muslims don't eat pork -- and informs him that bacon is pork.

Young Dev looks at the bacon, confused and a bit perturbed, deciding what to do. Then he opens wide and takes another bite. Back in the present, the episode involves Dev and his friend Navid eating pork and drinking alcohol -- but leading their parents to believe they are devout.

* * * *

If you grew up in Canada or the US, and you're not Jewish or Muslim or raised as a vegetarian, you have probably eaten bacon your whole life. But I can actually remember the first time I ever tasted the awesomeness that is bacon.

I was raised in the Reform Jewish tradition, and we didn't "keep kosher" (as it is called). But my parents grew up in kosher homes, and a bit of that cultural memory clung to our family. It is not unusual for Jewish people who are not kosher to not eat pork, and if they do, to not eat it in their own home. Even among the nonreligious and the most assimilated Jews, pork is often the last piece of Jewish culture to go. Pork is a bridge too far.

I was maybe 11 years old, in Miami, Florida with my father, for a union convention. This was a special treat, three days in a hotel with lots of excitement and confetti, and still young enough to want to spend time with my father. On one day, my father had some convention-related thing to do, and some of his union people took me for the day, or possibly just for the afternoon. I remember being confused because there were two people named Marion, and one was a man. (What's up with that?)

The bunch of adults took me out to lunch, and someone suggested a BLT. I didn't even know what that was! I wish I knew the name of the restaurant, because one of the adults said, "You've never had [name of restaurant]'s BLT? You haven't lived!" I wasn't sure if I was allowed to eat a BLT, but my curiosity and desire to try it outweighed any fear I may have had about being a bad Jew.

There should have been sound effects, a choir breaking out in song, when I bit into it. It was incredible. I'm guessing this was a really good sandwich, but also a product of its era -- a mound of iceberg lettuce, and probably white or rye toast. But oh. my. god. Bacon!

I did tell my parents that I tried this exotic food, and what the people said about not having lived. I thought they were being serious, which my parents found amusing. I did not get in trouble and did not feel guilty.

Only a few years later, as a teenager, BLTs would become a mainstay, as would cheeseburgers (also not kosher, as it mixes milk and meat). I quickly lost any compunction about eating pork -- sausage, bacon, and especially ribs. But this memory of bacon... it is peerless.