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I recently completed three booklists for library customers, part of a system-wide readers' advisory project. The lists use good gender balance, and a strong representation of people of colour and LGBT themes. I did classics, award-winning nonfiction, and essay collections. I love readers' advisory, and I really enjoyed the challenge of writing about each title in about 45 words.
In the list of essay collections, I included Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me. Then I decided it was time to read it! She's a brilliant essayist, one of the best I've ever read, and an important feminist voice. This slim collection packs an enormous punch.
Reading Solnit's now-famous piece about mansplaining made me think of another, related phenomenon. Both my partner and I have noticed this in discussions online, in a context where the commenters are mostly male. Here's how it goes.
A man comments.
Many people disagree with him, including me.
The man attacks me. Only me.
This happens consistently and predictably.
We first noticed this pattern on The Joy of Sox, the popular baseball blog written by my partner, Allan Wood. For some years, I was a frequent commenter and "gamethreader" in the Joy of Sox community, so we had ample opportunity to observe this pattern.
Allan writes from a progressive point of view, and like all the best sports writing, views the sport through a larger lens -- racism, labour, the militarization of sporting events, and so on. Although most members of the Joy of Sox community share this worldview, the world of men's professional sports is notoriously conservative, and Allan's politics drive some fans absolutely insane. (A side benefit, as far as we're concerned!)
Post, progressive perspective.
Comment, right-wing perspective.
Right-wing attack, directed at me.
Let's say Allan posts a positive view of a player who is getting a lot of negative media attention. The post is likely shared in many online baseball fan spaces. A commenter appears at Joy of Sox, angrily disagreeing (as they do).
The Joy of Sox regulars disagree with the negative commenter. I am one of five, six, maybe 10 people disagreeing with him -- but his response focuses only on me. And he doesn't just respond to me. He foams at the mouth.
The attacks can be especially vicious if the commenter doesn't know that he's flinging his verbal feces at the blogger's partner. If he does, he is more restrained -- the online equivalent of not getting harassed on the street when you're accompanied by a man.
To be clear, no member of the Joy of Sox community does this! JoS is an inclusive, egalitarian space, where a feminist, anti-racist perspective is the norm. The angry commenter is an outsider. Everyone disagrees with him -- sometimes quite derisively, mocking his ignorance. No matter. He focuses his attack on me.
Apparently the male commenter cannot abide being "contradicted" by a woman, no matter how polite or respectful her comments. He cannot bear her voicing an opinion, so he tries to bully her into silence.
I don't feel the slightest bit bullied or harassed in these situations. I have nothing but contempt for these regressive men with their delicate egos and myopic worldviews. But they are clearly attempting to bully me.
Back to Rebecca Solnit. In a powerful and deeply disturbing essay called "The Longest War", Solnit quotes the writer Laurie Penny: "An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet". (What a brilliant line!)
When I read this bit, all I could think was: poppies. Do you remember poppygate? It was during the 2018 Ontario election, when I was the NDP candidate for my riding. A right-wing rag ran a hate-piece on me, focusing on something I had written four years earlier, pulled out of context and (of course) purposely misinterpreted.
The response was so intense that the NDP took over my email, so I could focus on the campaign without reading daily threats of rape and murder.
Men arguing with me in comments on a baseball blog has never risen (or sunk) to this level. But it's on the same continuum. The other end of that continuum is murder. If you feel that's an exaggeration, give that essay "The Longest War" a spin. Trigger warnings galore.
Men arguing with me in comments: I wish I came up with a great word for this, the equivalent of mansplaining. Any ideas?
Like many writers, especially those of us who grew up before the digital age, I keep a notebook. I use it to capture ideas, capture thoughts about I'm reading, take notes on experiences, and take notes on various activist or community meetings I attend.
I've learned that I have to make notes while I'm thinking of something, because I am unlikely to remember the thought at another time, out of context. Before the digital age, I carried a small spiral memo pad with me almost all the time.
These days, however, I don't always have a notebook with me, so I do whatever is quickest -- type a note on my phone, scribble it on a scrap of paper, save an email in drafts, or email myself from one address to another.
Later on, when I'm blogging, I check my notebook to see my notes. But I don't look at the notes on my phone or the scraps of paper sitting in a neat pile on my desk or any other form of notetaking. My note-capturing process has changed, but my writing process has not. (And apparently cannot.)
Then I write something and post it.
Then sometime later, I find the other notes, the ones not in a notebook. And these notes bother me. I don't throw them away, and I don't delete them. And every time I see them, they remind me of my sloppy, haphazard, non-methodical writing methods.
And so, in what is sure to be an ongoing but occasional series, I bring you: a post of orphaned notes.
what i'm reading
I wrote about David Blight's huge and brilliant biography of Frederick Douglass here: what i'm reading: frederick douglass, prophet of freedom. In my phone, a note called "frederick douglass susan b anthony" says:
Huge rift btn Douglass and Anthony/Stanton re suffrage
Racist and white supremacist speeches
Douglass and drunken Irishman speech
Anti Indian in many speeches
Ignorance of what was happening to native americans
Also Douglass imperialist re annexing DR, Cuba, Haiti, what his reasons were
What does the moral purity crowd make of this? All it means is no one is perfect. Not even the best.
xref: extend more compassion to others' imperfections and our own.
A note called "frederick douglass" says:
lincoln re emancipation / JFK re civil rights
JFK was no lincoln but good parallel
both making political decisions, delaying moral decisions
both: standard history credits white men for movement they were dragged into, support only when there was no other option
A note called "running the books" (book reviewed here) says:
compassion as most defiant/radical act
complexities of rules - broken bent adhered to - conseqs
books are not mailboxes
"havens for all variety of loners and outcasts" = daytime library
what i'm watching
A note called "shameless uk" says:
learning the source of pain that drives bad behaviour eg monica's mum
A note called "bob newhart show guest stars" says:
len lesser (seinfeld uncle leo) (also get smart)
howard hesseman (early gay character)
S3 change in open, now shows emily
A note called "intellectual superheroes" says:
bletchley - fantastic four - superfriends - ea. w super powers
gets around pre-computer age
A note with no title says:
red dwarf waiting for film to be developed - limited imagination!
star trek TOS ep 15 "in accordance w/ our laws and our many beliefs"
malcolm dumb irritating people are often bigots
shows used to be 50 mins now 42 shows used to be 22 mins now 18
An ominous note with no title says:
where do their husbands and kids disappear to?Cultural appropriation
A note called "cultural appropriation?" has a brief intro from me, then copy/pasted text from letters to the New York Times Book Review.
letters to nyt book review about the ridiculousness of applying cultural appropriation to fiction
Letters to the Editor
To the Editor:
I wish your reviewers would keep to the business at hand of reviewing books. I am not interested in Lauren Groff’s anxiety and fear about reviewing “American Dirt” (Jan. 26), or her lack of Mexican heritage or migrant experience. Or the author’s lack of Mexican heritage or migrant experience, for that matter. We are all human beings, regardless of racial or ethnic background. Human beings love to tell and listen to stories. It’s in our makeup. It’s as simple as that, no matter who’s telling it. Writers have the great pleasure and privilege of creating worlds for us to enter, whatever color they are, or where they were born.
Please urge your reviewers to actually critique and/or praise books, not give us all their feelings about doing so, the controversy behind the book, or questioning the author’s right to tell the story. Save the hand-wringing and the virtue-signaling for the opinion pages.
To the Editor:
In her review of Jeanine Cummins’s “American Dirt,” Lauren Groff wondered whether she was the right person to review the novel, being neither a Mexican nor a migrant. If this were the case, then only an African-American should have reviewed DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy,” a Holocaust survivor William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” and a classicist Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece. If the critic represents the reader at his or her highest level, then Groff has succeeded admirably. She realizes she is not reviewing an art novel but a work of commercial fiction and judges it accordingly. She admits her ambivalence about it but cannot deny its emotional impact. Groff should be commended for navigating the troubled waters of cultural appropriation without hitting a reef.
Bernard F. Dick
To the Editor:
I haven’t read “American Dirt,” but the whole debate about cultural appropriation strikes me as ridiculous and dangerous. What’s next: telling a female author she doesn’t have the right to write from a male point of view, or vice versa? Was John Steinbeck an Okie? Was Harriet Beecher Stowe an African-American? And yet, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were powerful works that helped shape public opinion.
In the end, the only thing that really matters is: Is the work of fiction effective or not? Beyond that, it shouldn’t matter in the least who tells it.
To the Editor:
I have read about all the controversy associated with “American Dirt” and whether it is an appropriation of “Others’” stories. This is my question: I have read all of Tony Hillerman’s novels about the Southwest and the Navajo in particular. They gave me insight into the area and peoples that I never received from my undergraduate and graduate history education. Has anyone ever questioned Hillerman’s appropriation? Was he given a pass because he is a man? And recently male writers have been praised for their novels that featured female main characters.
There needs to be more discussion of these issues.
To the Editor:
The idea that certain groups have an exclusive right to certain stories is a critical fallacy; Shakespeare was not a woman, not a Moor, not a Jew, not a medieval — or ancient — English king. Nor was he unable, as a white Christian male of his time, to write sympathetically about them. Let’s get back to judging works on their merits, not by our personal politics.
A note from antiquityI have a note to myself from when I read The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead's first novel, in 1999! Yes, not only did I save this note from 19 years ago, I actually know where to find it! I may have sloppy writing habits, but I am very organized!
When she goes to see Coombs (Natchez) he tells the receptionist to her pass.
Vol I and II as old and new testament. Vol III "truly understands human need". shanti?
"It is important to let the citizens know it is coming. to let them prepare themselves for the second elevation."
Fulton as god or prophet, christlike figure. Lila Mae as prophet p 255
listening to joni
mingus, blasted for thinking she could play jazz and "be black"
1 mingus approached her
2 jazz has always been multicultural, first culture in US to be integrated
3 shut up you idiots
review her love life or her personality (which they imagined they knew based on songs) or criticized her for not doing ... ?
did critics hate her because they didn't understand her and she made them feel stupid?
anthology supposed 2 b walkthru of joni chronology but no revw of blue or c&s?
Orphaned blog ideas
These are notes for posts I've never written, and since I never see these notes, probably never will.
dr said choose habits that involve movement
why this is not practical or good advice
in btn 2 miles davis albums
incredibly fertile periods of great musicians: joni, dylan, coltrane
what years for each?
to find out which one deserves it most, a series of tests
everyone deserves it!
love, meaningful work, decent life, 2nd chance or 3rd or 4th chance
individual/anecdotal stories determining policies
one @ time - luck - policies for better
individuals vs better society
when could you get quality food at a decent price?
when could one earner support a family?
is this only true for white people?
role of unions
who is the news for?
price of oil
layoffs vs stock market
"growth" - shareholders
who produces the news
These have been sitting in Blogger drafts for ages. I don't write them, but I don't delete them.
thoughts on listening to bob dylan while driving through the [ends there]
what i'm reading: galileo: watcher of the skies by david wootton
seeing the night sky
five assumptions urbans make about rurals and vice versa
the trudeau government should create green jobs, not bail out the fossil-fuel industry
the strange and circular concept of electability
athena is organizing against amazon, and you can help -- even if you use amazon. especially if you use amazon.
mass demos are ineffective and have been for more than two decades
Here we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and I feel (to paraphrase my favourite baseball player) like the luckiest person on the face of the earth.*
I'm healthy, my partner is healthy, and no one in our extended families has gotten covid.
Thanks to my union, and to my partner's very decent employer, we have a comfortable income, and we didn't lose any income during the pandemic.
I have a safe, comfortable, spacious place to ride out the lockdown and the pandemic in general, with plenty of indoor interests to keep me busy.
I live in an area with very low covid incidence, where it's easy to enjoy the outdoors while maintaining social distancing.
And that's just my covid-related good fortune. In general my privilege is vast. My young life had many challenges, and perhaps my future holds more (who knows), but in the present I am incredibly fortunate.
I hope many of you reading this also enjoy lives of privilege, and that you have strong support for the areas of your life where you don't.
The thing about privilege is you don't choose it. You can't lose it. And even if you did, what good would that do?
The thing about privilege is recognizing it.
The thing about privilege is what you do with it.
* * * *
This month, I encourage you to use some of your privilege to advocate for people who have none, by participating in Write for Rights.
Write for Rights is Amnesty International's largest annual event. It's easy to participate in and it gets results.
These are the 10 cases -- the 14 people -- that Amnesty Canada has chosen to highlight this year. You can read about each one here.
The great thing about Write for Rights is you can participate in a way that works for you.
You can write on your own, as I do.
You can write one letter.
You can write 10 letters.
You can write by email.
You can type, print, and send a paper letter.
It's not difficult to do.
It makes a difference.
* Many years ago, I wrote "on luck," one of wmtc's greatest hits. This is one of the posts that lost dozens of comments. But it's still a good post.
An Antidote to COVID Boredom: Virtual Book Clubs
As winter settles in on the North Island, and we continue social distancing to lessen the risks of contracting COVID-19, life can sometimes get a little monotonous. Boredom is bad for our mental health. Plus, it's boring!
If reading is one of your pleasures, perhaps now is the time to try reading with a group – a book club. The Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) is offering three virtual (online) book clubs with three different themes. Like all library programs, you can join in for free. All you need is a device and an internet connection.
All the selections for these virtual book club titles will be available as eBooks and eAudiobooks with no waiting.
"Our Shared Shelf" Book Club is focused on children's chapter books that the whole family can enjoy. November's title was Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, an adventure story about a brave 11-year-old girl on a supernatural mission to save her best friend Jack from meeting an icy end.
An early title was The Case of the Missing Moonstone, a fun mix of mystery, history, and science, imagining what would happen if Ada Lovelace (the world's first computer programmer) and Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) formed a detective agency.
The Librarian hosting the group posts questions to get you and your child thinking about the book, and suggests activities you can do together that tie in with the themes.
"Take a Break" is an adult book club focused on lighthearted reads. The November title is The Rosie Project by Australian author Graeme Simsion. This book tells the story of a nerdy, super-organized professor who devises a questionnaire to help him meet the perfect woman. When Rosie, a bartender, enters his life, she doesn't meet any of his criteria … and things begin to get interesting
"Books & Beyond" is a book club focused on community action. After each title, the moderators propose a challenge or task for members to participate in, which help explore the topics covered in the book.
One recent "Books & Beyond" title was The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, a supernatural tale highlighting questions of guilt, innocence, and justice. The November title was The Arrival of Someday by Jen Malone, about a teenager whose world comes to a sudden halt when she learns she needs an organ transplant.
To find these virtual book clubs, go to virl.bc.ca/book-club. Scroll down to find the one (or more!) that interests you. When you click on the name of the club, you'll go to a the club's Facebook group.
Or, go through Facebook:
Our Shared Shelf: facebook.com/groups/ossbookclub
Take A Break: facebook.com/groups/takeabreakbookclub
Books & Beyond: facebook.com/groups/booksandbeyondbookclub
As always, if you need help finding these or any other library resource, ask at your favourite branch. We're here to help.
Homeschooling? Your Library Can Help
One of the many ways COVID has changed our lives is an increased interest in homeschooling. Of course no parents want their children to be exposed to the virus. But many families face health challenges that make the possibility of exposure much more dangerous. Parents may have many reasons for preferring homeschooling, and the pandemic has brought them front of mind.
If you're a homeschool family, you already know that the public library is an invaluable resource. But the Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) can support your efforts in many ways that you might not be aware of.
One of VIRL's most popular resources for homeschool families are our Tinker Totes. Tinker Totes help you bring STEAM learning to life in your own home. STEAM – which stands for Science Technology Engineering Arts Math – activities encourage creative thinking and build problem-solving skills. With STEAM learning, children learn through hands-on experience, rather than memorizing lists and writing exams.
Try Magna Tiles or Keva Planks for building and engineering, a set of handbells for a group music experience, Code-A-Pillar to learn the basic principles of computer coding, and a sensory playtime for a unique, all-around learning experience. Ask for these kits at your library branch, or go to virl.bc.ca and search the catalogue for Tinker Totes.
CreativeBug is another great STEAM resource. One of our newest e-resources, CreativeBug offers thousands of video classes taught by expert makers in design, art, and all manner of crafts. Exploring and creating art, crafts, and DIY projects are all very much STEAM learning. Kids – like all of us – learn best when they enjoy what they're doing. Along with CreativeBug, VIRL has a wealth of art and craft books geared to children – no internet connection needed.
Another popular resource for enriching home learning are VIRL's literacy kits. "Lit kits," as we like to call them, focus on different learning themes, such as Wild Animals, Pirates, Things That Go, Force and Motion, and Divorce. Like Tinker Totes, Lit Kits come in a backpack or tote. They contain books, CDs, DVDs, toys, and other educational tools.
VIRL also offers a huge variety of e-resources specially designed for children and teens. Encyclopedia of British Columbia, Explora for Kids, KnowBC, Knowledge Network, National Geographic Kids, OverDrive for Kids, PebbleGo, and TumbleBookLibrary, are all kid-friendly, and great resources for research projects, building literacy skills, and independent learning.
All in all, the best resource for homeschooling is your local library. Staff can help you find books on every topic, and show you amazing e-resources for kids and teens. To get started, go to virl.bc.ca > learn > kids, or stop by your favourite branch.
"at your library" in the north island eagle: new e-resources and new hours at the port hardy library
New E-Resources – and New Hours at the Port Hardy Library
The Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) has added some terrific new e-resources to our catalogue.
If you read this column, you've read a lot about e-resources. VIRL gives you access to digital tools that focus and it's all free. All you need is a library card.
Our newest e-resource is Clicklaw. Clicklaw provides legal information and education, specifically for people in BC. The law affects our lives in countless ways, and Clicklaw can help you understand your rights and your options. It's kept updated with the most current laws, and can connect you to expert knowledge and advice.
Some of the categories of information in Clicklaw are money (debt, pensions, benefits), families (divorce, abuse, wills), housing (landlords, tenants, neighbours), consumer (contractors, warranties, lending, credit), and employment (hiring and firing, harassment, benefits). These are just a few examples.
Clicklaw is also a great resource for anyone who wants to teach others about the law, or to raise awareness of how various laws impact us. Teachers, counselors, and community activists may find this very useful. You can also search under a specific community or group that you identify with – Indigenous, women, people with disabilities, seniors, or newcomers.
Another priceless e-resource is Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports is best known for its independent, unbiased reviews of cars, appliances, and other expensive items. They don't accept advertising, and their reviews are based on strict, scientific testing.
I know what you might be thinking: the internet is full of user reviews – doesn't that make Consumer Reports obsolete? Anything but.
There's an onslaught of information on the internet, but who can you trust? How much of the information is valid, verified, real? Consumer Reports can help you cut through so much confusing, conflicting information. It can help you understand food labeling, how to keep your identity safe, financial scams, chemical exposure – even the latest news about COVID-19. And it's available free, through your library.
If you're interested in either Clicklaw or Consumer Reports, but you don't know how to get started, visit your local VIRL branch. Even though we're only offering "Takeout" service, staff can still help you get started – six feet apart, and wearing masks, but we'll do our best!
Port Hardy: Improved Open Hours
If you love the Port Hardy library, we have good news! In response to customer requests, we've shifted our open hours to give you more access to the library at times when you are available.
The Port Hardy Library will now be open with continuous hours (that is, no closure for lunch or dinner) on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and will be open until 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Come and visit us! Even though we can't welcome you through our doors, we'll still be very happy to see you, and we'll help you find what you need.
Catching up on my "At Your Library" column in one of our free local newspapers.
September Is Literacy Month
When you hear the word "literacy", you might think of reading and writing. That is the traditional definition of literacy, but did you know there are many different kinds of literacy?
Numerical literacy is the ability to do the basic math that is needed in every day life – to make change, add up a budget, or read a graph.
Digital literacy means having basic computer skills, being able to use technology to access information, solve problems, and make your life easier. Contrary to what many people think, young people aren't necessarily digitally literate.
Health literacy means being able to communicate with health-care providers, follow instructions for medications, find health information, for some examples.
Financial Literacy means the ability to understand and manage your finances.
Media Literacy means sorting through and understanding the messages we get from all kinds of media – TV, movies, videogames, magazines. In this Information Age, this is something that many people struggle with.
The global pandemic has really highlighted the connection between health literacy and media literacy. There is so much information – but it's not necessarily accurate, and we can't necessarily trust it or take it at face value. How do we find good information? How do we separate facts from opinions? What media can we trust?
There is also: cultural literacy, emotional literacy, and physical literacy.
In short, all the skills you need to navigate and make sense of the world are literacies. And guess what? Your library can help with all of them!
When you want to know more about the world, when you want to learn a new skill or pursue a new hobby, your library is the perfect place to start. At the library, we can connect you with resources to get you started. And of course, our help is free of charge.
Taming the Tiger is markedly different than Joni's previous album, Turbulent Indigo. Where Turbulent Indigo is dark, intense, and enigmatic, and the lyrics largely topical, this one has a light, lyrical feel, the music shimmering and weightless, the lyrics more personal. Many critics regard it as Joni's best "latter day" album, perhaps because it's more accessible. I wouldn't go that far -- Turbulent Indigo and Night Ride Home are both better, in my view -- but Taming the Tiger is a solid album.
To me, the name of the album and the title track are self-referential -- Joni, the fierce and dangerous tiger is now a domestic house cat. But in every cat there lurks some tiger; after all, this is "taming", a process, not past tense.
The title song's refrain see-saws us from the house cat to the tiger and back, using bits from the William Blake poem to a new purpose.
Tiger tiger burning brightly
(You can't tame the tiger)
Oh, be nice kitty-kitty
Tiger tiger burning brightly
Fight to the light
Fight to the light
In the forest of the night.
Joni may be somewhat domesticated, no longer doing battle with the music industry, critics, and a string of suitors, but "nice kitty-kitty" still bores her. She still wants to fight through the night: she wants excitement, she wants passion.
Would a house cat begin a song with this?
"Kiss my ass, I said,
and I threw my drink...
Tequila trickling down
His business suit
That song, "Lead Balloon," is a flippant take on the familiar theme of Joni's dislike of the music industry. She sings:
An angry man is just an angry man,
But an angry woman...
The narrator "fights before [she] thinks". Then when she has to ask the man for help -- because it's "his town" -- that goes down like a lead balloon. Not Joni's finest songwriting, but the song itself is lively and fun.
On "Man From Mars", she laments a lost love, who was an alien creature among the rest of humanity.
Since I lost you...She's hurting, but she's mocking her pain, too, calling her tears "a big boo-hoo" and lamenting "what am I to do?" like a soap opera actor.
I can't get through the day
Without at least one big boo-hoo
The pain won't go away
What am I to do?
"Face Lift" contains snippets of mockery, too, as she sings about conflict with her conservative upbringing and her mother's platitudes -- platitudes that she may have adopted. The album's sultry opener, "Harlem in Havana," also mentions that "Auntie Ruthie would have died if she knew we were on the inside". It's always interesting how those childhood realities stay with us our entire lives, and how they inform art.
My favourite track on Taming the Tiger is "Stay In Touch". Many critics point out that it seems to be about Joni's reunion with her daughter and the grandson she didn't know she had. But you know how I feel about music being "about" something. "Stay In Touch" certainly may have been inspired by these life-changing events, but a master songsmith like Joni Mitchell can't be defined by such a narrow frame.
Part of this is permanent
Part of this is passing
So we must be loyal and wary
Not to give away too much
Till we build a firm foundation
And empty out old habits
Joni's guitar is slow and plaintive, Wayne Shorter's soprano sax is mournful but not maudlin. The lyrics take a cliched phrase, something people say with barely a thought -- "we should stay in touch" -- and turns it into a meditation on the human need for connection. The song is so poignant, almost painful.
The arrangements on this album are delicate and ambient -- jazzy but not quite jazz. Joni's distinctive guitar and Shorter's sax form the predominant sound, but both take a back seat to Joni's vocals.
The album cover
This album art is a treasure trove of Joni paintings, and seems to be a series. There are images of paintings -- photographed with their frames -- on each page of the lyrics booklet, as well as on the CD.
|This painting comes complete with word-play.|
It seems to me like an update of the inside cover of For the Roses.
|This is one of Joni's cats, Nietzsche.|
|This is a portrait of Canadian musician Don Freed, called|
"After the Bombing of Dresden". Story is here.
|This is interesting! I didn't find any information on it.|
I made up a story that Joni is the cat and the male hand is the music industry.
There's no reason to think this is what Joni had in mind!
In past "listening to joni" posts, I tallied references to cactus and stockings, which were recurrent symbols in Joni songs. This album revives another lyrical trend: Paris, or France. Of course two of her very well-known songs are "In France They Kiss On Main Street" and "I Was a Free Man in Paris". When I hear references to Paris and France, I think the place-names are associated with freedom and abandon, and the alternative to the staid, conventional life.
On Taming the Tiger, there is this refrain from "Love Puts on a New Face":
But in France they say
Love puts on a new face
Love has many faces
Here, France is the place that understands love, the place we can look to for guidance about being in love.
In "Face Lift", she sings of a memory:
We pushed the bed up to the windowI can imagine a young Joan Anderson looking at the lights on the bridges over the South Saskatchewan River, imagining they were the lights of Paris.
To see the Christmas lights
On the east bank across the steaming river
Between the bridges lit up Paris-like
This river has run through both our lives
Between these banks of our continuing delights
Bless us, don't let us lose the drift
You know, Happiness is the best facelift.
In her own words
On the CD cover, after the lyrics and credits, are these dedications.
Special thanks to Fred Wallecki and Brian Blade
For rekindling my desire to make music.
Thanks to everyone at the Daily Grill for the good food and the good cheer.
Thanks to Edwin and the parking gang for their friendliness and courtesy.
Thanks to Julie Larson for fighting for me and with me.
And special, special thanks to Kilauren and Marlin just for being in this world.
"Crazy Cries of Love" words by Don Freed.
"My Best To You" written by Gene Willadsen and Isham Jones.
Other musicians on this album
Bass, Larry Klein
Drums, Brian Blade
Sax, Soprano Sax, Wayne Shorter
Barker on "Harlem in Havana", Femi Jiya
Pedal steel, Greg Leisz
Low Lead Guitar, Michael Landau
Joni, in addition to guitar and vocals: guitar orchestra, keyboards, background vocals, bass ("Man from Mars", "No Apologies"), percussion ("My Best to You").
One album left in this blog series
This is the penultimate post in the Listening to Joni series! I'm not including compilations or anthologies, so unless Joni records some new music, there is only one more album to write about.
I've already purchased a copy of Joni Mitchell Archives, Volume 1, although I've only explored it a bit so far. I'm thrilled that Joni decided to open the vault. The package itself is impeccably designed.
Greenhouse covered labour issues for The New York Times for more than 30 years. It's obvious that the research for Beaten Down, Worked Up was vast and meticulous, but the book is never bogged down by too much detail. The writing is clear and accessible. Greenhouse is unapologetically pro-labour, but not a cheerleader for unions.
I found the book easy to read and compelling, and I recommend it highly both to readers of nonfiction with an interest in history and to labour activists. It should be required reading for all workers who are union skeptics!
I really appreciated how this book was organized. Greenhouse walks readers through a story arc, and that story brings a profound understanding of what is at stake, and the potential for change. He demonstrates that when workers win, all of society benefits -- and when workers lose, society begins to crumble.
Part One: State of the Union
The first part of the book describes what happens when workers lose their collective voice, or when that voice is greatly diminished.
The section ends with what must be American labour's best-kept secret: Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Las Vegas, Nevada. This is the best illustration of what a strong, progressive, well-organized, and member-driven union can do for its members and for the companies they work for, that I've ever encountered.
Local 226 has transformed the lives of hotel room attendants, food servers, porters, bellmen, cooks, bartenders, laundry workers, and kitchen workers who work on the Las Vegas Strip. The members of Local 226 have transformed these jobs from poverty-level cesspools of exploitation, to well-paid employment with great benefits and a clear path to advancement. Union leadership comes from the rank-and-file, the majority of which are women, Latinx, and other people of colour,
I read the descriptions of Local 226 member benefits with my jaw dropping. Health insurance, including dental, is only the beginning. Members have the opportunity to take free courses to qualify for higher-paying jobs. This means, as Greenhouse writes, "A $35,000-a-year restaurant busser can train for a $60,000-a-year job as a waiter and then study to become a $90,000-a-year sommelier". The union has a homebuyers program for those who reach a certain income threshold can get $20,000 towards a downpayment -- which does not have to be repaid until the member sells the home.
Greenhouse outlines how Local 226 became the model union, how it maintains its high standards, and how they use their political clout. It expanded my vision of what a union can be.
Part Two: Labor Raises Its Voice
Next, Greenhouse tells stories from labour history:
- "The Uprising of the Twenty Thousand", about Clara Lemlich and textile workers; which dovetails with
- "Out of These Ashes", about the Triangle Fire (which I've written about several times) (read this book!) and the influence of Frances Perkins;
- "Standing Up by Sitting Down", about the Flint sit-down strikes; which leads to
- "Walter Reuther, Builder of the Middle Class"; and
- "I Am A Man", about the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike -- made famous because that's why Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
These stories are thrilling -- and inspirational.
I already knew a fair bit about Clara Lemlich, but reading her story can never get old. A tiny woman, entirely self-educated, barely out of her teens when she started organizing, Lemlich began a movement that became a powerful, transformative force for an entire industry of workers. She is one of my greatest heroes.
Despite the many books written about the Flint sit-down strikes, I didn't know many of the details, and this story was no less thrilling. Many of us view the factory work that used to be common in the US and Canada as decent jobs -- well-paid, with fair treatment, benefits, paid vacations, even pensions. It was not always thus. These jobs became decent work because of unions -- because workers had the courage to unite and use their collective power.
If anyone doubts that unions have contributed to the greater good -- indeed, that they built a middle-class and made it flourish -- they should read about Walter Reuther (who also came from the rank-and-file) and the birth and life of the United Auto Workers.
Part Three: Hard Times for Labor
Part Three of Beaten Down, Worked Up charts the decline of organized labour in the United States, beginning, of course, with the disastrous job action by the Professional Association of Air Traffic Controllers -- the PATCO strike.
I knew this as the birth of Reaganism and the beginning of the unraveling of the power of organized labour -- and with it, the public good -- in the US. However, I didn't know the details behind the strike -- the many missteps by workers and organizers, who were understandably incredibly angry, but who were untrained in bargaining and let their anger guide them, and the blatant duplicity of then-POTUS Ronald Reagan. It's a heartbreaking story, especially since we know the ending in advance.
In this section, Greenhouse looks at the many reasons labour's voice declined so precipitously: global trends; a new brand of capitalism that focuses relentlessly and solely on shareholder profit; top-down, business unionism and union corruption and discrimination; and the assault on the public sector by politicians like former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and right-wing mega-funders like the Koch Brothers.
This part of the book was heartbreaking and frustrating but very informative. The only part I couldn't get into was the corresponding decline in unions' ability to influence politics. However, readers who do the important work of harnessing workers' political power may find this section instructive.
Part Four: Labor, Today and Tomorrow
The final section of Beaten Down, Worked Up looks at the re-emergence and resurgence of workers' collective voice happening right now -- and these stories are every bit as thrilling as those of Clara Lemlich and Walter Reuther.
In this section, Greenhouse profiles:
- Efforts to bring sanity and equity to the gig economy (which is even worse than I thought);
- The Fight for 15 (which has had many significant wins);
- The Immokalee farm workers, "from Worst to Best";
- The entire City of Los Angeles and how it became a labour-friendly town;
- The ongoing #RedforEd public-school movement that began in 2018; and -- wait for it --
- A stunning example of how labour and management can work together for the good of workers, the company, and their customers. I had to stop my eyes from rolling back in my head, but it does seem to be happening at Kaiser Permanente.
These stories are rich with lessons that all labour activists can learn from, and brainstorm about how various tactics and strategies might be adapted for their own context -- in both union and nonunion workplaces.
I used to get emails about the Immokalee farm workers, asking me to write companies such as Burger King, who bought tomatoes from these growers -- but I didn't know much of the story behind the movement. (Plus I finally learned how to pronounce it! Immokalee rhymes with broccoli.)
Immokalee is the leading supplier of "winter tomatoes", all the tomatoes used by consumers and restaurants in the US during the winter months. Workers there lived in conditions barely above slavery, and, in some cases, actually were slaves. With an assist from two labour activists who took on the work as their own, the workers organized, transforming Immokalee to the best conditions of farmworkers in the country -- and a decent place to work.
Farmworkers in Florida are not legally allowed to organize, so this fight needed creative strategies, direct action, and -- like all labour fights -- persistence and tenacity. And they won, without the benefit of a union.
Workers in the City of Los Angeles have -- among many successes -- innovated the Community Benefits Agreement, in which developers agree to design new projects so they enrich not only themselves but the surrounding community, with local hiring, living wage provisions, and community investment. These are not empty promises -- they are legally binding agreements with built-in accountability and significant penalties for non-compliance.
Lessons and Workers' Voices
Many lessons are embedded in these stories, but the two most powerful ideas are also the simplest.
One, different contexts call for different strategies. Depending on the industry, the workers, the employer, the workplace, the larger community, and the economic situation, different strategies will be needed in order to succeed. While there are certainly some basic principles that apply, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy or solution. In Immokalee, for example, classic farmworker organizing was unsuccessful. They didn't give up: they changed tactics.
And two, when workers win, we all win. Every one of these initiatives -- private sector or public, inside work or outside work, professional or manual labour -- reduces poverty, strengthens the economy, benefits families, and brings positive impacts to every part of the community. Labour activists are not fighting for a slightly larger piece of the pie. They are fighting for affordable housing, living wage laws for all workers (union and nonunion), better education, better healthcare.
The most compelling stories in Beaten Down, Worked Up are about workers who stepped up and became workplace leaders. Some, like Clara Lemlich, had no role models, and learned only by intelligence, intuition, and raw courage. Others raised their voices to look for help, or were approached by organizers and leapt at the opportunity. Every single one of them -- hotel room cleaners, tomato pickers, grade-school teachers, airport luggage handlers, sanitation workers -- discovered their potential, and went on to lead hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands.
It's fitting, then, to close with some words about and from some newly-minted labour leaders.
Shortly before closing time one Sunday, Terrence Wise was mopping the floor at his Burger King in Kansas City, when three fast-food workers entered the store and approached him. A worker wearing a Domino's shirt asked, "Do you think you deserve better pay?"
"Yes, of course," Wise recalls telling them.
"Do you think you deserve health benefits?" the workers asked.
"Yes," Wise responded, telling them he hadn't seen a dentist in 18 years.
"Do you think you deserve a vacation?"
"Yes," Wise said, noting he hadn't seen his mother in eight years.
That was the first time Wise heard of the Fight for $15, and within a week he was attending an FF15 meeting with a dozen other fast-food workers inside St. Mark's Lutheran Church. Little did Wise know that his joining the movement would take him to some surprising places.
Two months later, on July 29, 2013, the Fight for $15 staged its first strike in Kansas City, and Wise didn't show up for his jobs at Burger King and Pizza Hunt. He instead protested alongside 60 other workers outside a McDonald's downtown. That day he worried he might get fired, yet he felt empowered, liberated even. Before the Fight for $15 came along, he said, it never crossed his mind that fast-food workers could walk out "because they don't treat us right."
Wise so impressed the other Kansas City workers with how well he spoke that they designated him their spokesman for the media interviews. His early interest in the ministry had helped make him an eloquent speaker; when Wise gets going, he often speaks in the cadences of Martin Luther King Jr. Soon the Fight for $15 even had him doing interviews on national media.
He told NPR's All Things Considered about being homeless despite holding two jobs. "We lost our home, and we were sleeping our minivan, me and my fiancee and my three little girls," he said, "We're in America, the richest nation on Earth, and here we have two working parents getting ready for work in the front seat of their minivan, while their three daughters are getting ready for school in the back."
On the radio show Democracy Now! Wise addressed the myth that fast-food workers are overwhelmingly teenagers trying to get extra spending money. "Where I work, in both my shops, there aren't high schoolers. There are people with families," he said. "We're raising families. We're doing hard work, and we deserve to get a living wage."
Every few months, the Fight for $15 held anther strike in Kansas City, with the biggest rally swelling to 2,000 people -- not just fast-food workers, but other low-wage workers and supporters from the faith, labor, African American, Latino, and LGBT communities. Wise and his fiancee, Myoshia, let their daughters miss school to join the protests. "It's been teaching the kids a lot," Myoshia said. "Stand up and fight -- it's stuff they don't teach in school."
Kansas City's fast-food workers elected Wise to be their representative on the Fight for $15's National Organizing Committee, which holds conference calls every two weeks, connecting fast-food leaders from sixty cities. He served as emcee at a Fight for $15 convention in Chicago that brought together 1,000 workers. He was even invited to speak to an NAACP convention in Las Vegas.
America's fast-food workers are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, and the Fight for $15 has tied its struggle to the civil rights movement and Dr. King's struggle for economic justice. It has even joined forces with the revived Poor People's Campaign, rekindled by the Reverend William Barber. "We've seen how the civil rights movement won civil rights," Wise said. "Those things weren't given to us. People faced hoses and beatings. Some people even died. We have to bring the same pressure for today's times and make these companies listen to us. We have to do whatever it takes to win."
Wise is proud that the Fight for $15 is multiracial. "We saw how some unions would exclude women and Hispanics and Blacks," he said. "We knew that wasn't the way. We knew we have to bring all workers together, whether you're black, white, Hispanic, Asian. We had to break all those barriers."
His brightest moment came when the White House organized its Summit on Worker Voice in October 2015. Not only was Wise invited to attend, but he was asked to introduce President Obama. With the president standing at his side, Wise told the White House audience that he was a second-generation fast-food worker and that "despite my working nearly two decades in this industry, I make just $8 an hour." The crowd burst into applause when his mother, JoAnn, was introduced -- the Fight for $15 had brought her to the conference, the first time Wise had seen her in a decade.
"I had a chance to tell Mr. Obama how there are times I struggle and I can barely feed my three daughters," Wise said. "It hurt me to tell him that."
In Wise's view, three ingredients have been critical to the Fight for $15's success.
First, it encourages workers to tell the world their own, often powerful stories.
Second, fast-food workers have organized other fast-food workers. "That's the single most important thing," Wise said. "We're the ones that make these companies filthy rich, and we're the ones that are supposed to have this conversation, talking to each other, getting people involved."
The last ingredient has been the movement's extraordinary success at mobilizing workers, getting them to strike and into the streets. That has gotten the attention of McDonald's, state legislatures, and millions of Americans.
"The one thing that works is boots on the ground," Wise said. "Marching and organizing will never grow old.
Here's another inspiring profile of a Fight For $15 leader.
The first time Adrian Alvarez heard of the Fight For $15 was at her mother's house. She often stopped there for food because she didn't earn enough to properly feed herself and her young son, Manny. Her mother told her, Quick, look at the TV, they're showing fast-food workers in New York.
"I thought it was crazy," Alvarez said. "I just kind of laughed." As for the campaign's demand for $15, her initial reaction was "We're not going to get $15. I thought it was too much. Maybe we can get 10 or 12. Honestly, I just thought it would die out," Alvarez said about the movement's progress. "I'd just join on for a little bit, and we'll see what happens. I had no idea the movement would become so big, so important."
Alvarez, the American-born daughter of immigrants from Mexico, grew up in Cicero, a popular and good enough student. Her mother worked in a nearby chicken-processing plant, and her father was a truck driver. After high school, she attended East-West University in Chicago to study forensics, but she dropped out after a year because she couldn't afford a second year of tuition. Alvarez and her son share a bedroom in a basement apartment, which is occupied as well by another single mother with a young son, because Alvarez, making $1,100 a month, on average, couldn't afford the apartment on her own.
Alvarez circulated a petition, asking their McDonald's franchisee to follow the laws, to treat them with respect, and to give workers full-time hours. They were all surprised when they received raises, from from $8.50 an hour to $9.15, and then to $9.75. Alvarez's involvement in FF15 grew along with the movement. At one event, the FF15 brought in a fast-food worker from Denmark.
"She said she makes in three days what we make in two weeks," Alvarez said. "We're doing the same kind of work. It just crushed me." [And of course, the Danish worker's health care is taken care of, too.]
Soon after Alvarez threw herself into the Fight for $15, her McDonald's greatly cut back her hours. The Fight for $15's lawyers filed a complaint with the NLRB, and the labor board's Chicago office warned her franchise owner that it was illegal to retaliate against Alvarez for engaging in pro-worker activities. Her hours were restored.
All the clamor pressured Chicago's business-friendly mayor, Rahm Emanuel, into embracing a $13 minimum wage, in part to help him survive a reelection challenge from the left. That step pressured Alvarez's McDonald's to lift her pay towards $13, even though she works in neighboring Cicero. "The paychecks are bigger now. I can do more with Manny. I can now afford to take him to movies or the Museum of Science and Industry."
Alvarez has become one of the Fight for $15's leading spokeswomen against sexual harassment on the job; 25 McDonald's workers have filed complaints with the EEOC about managers demanding sex and groping their breasts and buttocks. "The public doesn't know what we go through, behind the counters, in the bathrooms, in the janitors' closets," Alvarez said. "We're sick and tired of having to deal with this."
Alvarez was flattered when Fight for $15 strategists invited her to go to Argentina to be the movement's emissary at a day of fast-food strikes there -- part of an effort to make the movement global. Alvarez was a natural choice: she's bilingual, and warm and winning with people. She is also a poised (though she says nervous) speaker who thinks and speaks well on her feet. Of her visit to Buenos Aires, Alvarez said, "They were appalled when I told them that we didn't have any sick days. One worker said, 'But you're from the United States. How can that be?' I was ashamed. The fast-food workers have a union there. They get paid sick days. They get paid vacation. One of the unions has a little camp where they can go on vacation. I don't know what a vacation is. People have been at my McDonald's 10 or 15 years and have never taken a vacation.
"A lot of people get scared of protesting," Alvarez added. "I'm not scared. If you have this big union behind you, why would you be scared? I was more afraid of coming home and not being able to feed my child."
I'll close with words from Roxana Tynan, an organizer with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), the pioneering Los Angeles workers group that is reshaping the entire labour landscape in that city -- and is being replicated in many other US cities.
These are words every labour activist should already know. But truth never gets old.
[Tynan's] message for worker advocates and their progressive allies is that one can only build power from the bottom. "Our real message is that power gets built in place and gets built through long-standing coalitions and through leadership development," she said. "And it gets built through the day-to-day work of organizing folks through permanent institutions. There is no shortcut to that. Fancy-ass ideas like universal basic income are meaningless if there is no power to win anything."
Tynan has little patience for critics who dismiss LAANE as a bunch of out-of-control leftist seeking to tear down capitalism. "We have business support," she said. "Developers work with us. Not only do we not have horns, but we have a fundamentally pro-growth agenda. We just want to ensure that all boats are rising." . . .
"When all is said and done," says Tynan, "we have a pretty conservative vision: that people should earn enough money so they can take care of themselves and their families, live somewhere decent, and send their kids to schools that they like. This whole idea that raising wages is a left idea is kind of nutty. You can't make an economy work if people don't have money to spend."
When we were in Salt Spring Island, we went to the Saturday Market, and I instantly fell in love with this man's work.
Salt Spring artist Lorne Tippett uses wine-barrel stays to create a hanging frame, and carves the designs from reclaimed wood. We splurged and bought one. It's not like we're spending money on anything else this year! It's now hanging on our covered deck.
|We hung it where you can also see it from inside the house.|
I love the shape of the wooden base; it echoes the mountains we see all around us. The fish are carved from Pacific yew, spalted yellow cedar, black walnut, and gory oak.
Shortly after this, something amazing happened.
Our favourite restaurant here is Cluxewe Waterfront Bistro. It is open only from May through the end of September, and has far and away the best food and most creative menu in our region. The food is not just great for our area, it's just great food.
This year we tried to go as often as possible. Cluxewe hosts Chris and Julie had a raffle going for a spectacular piece by a well-known Indigenous artist, Trevor Hunt. (There are many artists from the same family.) I bought several tickets -- and was beyond shocked when we won!
This piece would sell for almost $4,000 in a gallery. Its monetary value is not what makes it special, but I mention it to emphasize that we could never dream of buying art like this.
|On the back|
We had a bit of excitement last week, and I realized I shared it only on Facebook. I'm sure wmtc readers want an answer to the burning question, What is Cookie up to now?
This is what she's up to!
She Who Cannot Be Contained must have put her paws on the kitchen counter -- I had been cooking and she was looking for morsels -- and on the way down, hit the stove, turning on a burner. The Instant Pot lid was resting on the stovetop.
I was on a zoom meeting with my door shut, but Allan (who has almost no sense of smell) smelled fumes -- went downstairs -- and found the kitchen and hallway filling with smoke. The smoke detector never went off. The smell of burning plastic lingered for days.
New Instant Pot ordered.
Batteries in smoke detectors changed.
Guards for the burner knobs ordered.
Reading reviews of various knob guards on Amazon, more people needed them for dogs than for children!
In case you are wondering, Cookie is still finding ways to leave the house -- unauthorized and unaccompanied. She runs around the neighbourhood, joyous and free, until she lets us corral her. She has done some very impressive recall when we were away from home, but when it comes to her own street, nada.
Somehow these shenanigans just make me love her more. Maybe I relate to her total disregard for authority.
Many well-known rock and pop musicians have died lately, including Helen Reddy, Eddie Van Halen, and Jerry Jeff Walker. More names will be coming fast and furiously as the icons of the Boomer generation age.
One such death came to the country and blues music communities recently, that of Billy Joe Shaver.
Shaver's songwriting epitomized the outlaw-country ethic and apparently so did his life. He talked the talk and walked the walk. He was outlaw-country before the movement had a name.
Shaver wrote songs for Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. On a 2007 country-gospel album, he sang duets with Cash, Kristofferson, and Tanya Tucker, backed by notables such as Randy Scruggs and Marty Stuart. In 2010, Willie Nelson called Shaver "the greatest living songwriter". In his younger days, he hung out with Townes Van Zandt -- and really, what more can you say?
Anyway, in the fairgrounds where Jazz Fest is held, there are stages and audiences of every size, from headliner acts with big horn sections and backup singers, to the most intimate acoustic styles. In what must have been the smallest "stage" of all, really just a couple of wood stumps and a tiny space of grass where a few people could gather, we sat down to hear Billy Joe Shaver and Joe Ely play and sing together. We saw so much incredible music that week, but few moments have stayed in my mind like that one.
Fisk was often criticized for "politicizing" war reporting, or for not being "objective". Most war journalists are little more than propaganda mouthpieces for the wealthy countries that invade and seek to control poorer countries, whether directly or by proxy. This highly biased view is said to be apolitical and objective, when it merely reflects the politics of the dominant point of view. The only difference between Fisk's reporting and almost every other war journalist's reporting was that he was honest and up-front about his point of view.
Fisk was one of the few English-language journalists (perhaps the only one?) who didn't allow themselves to be "embedded" with the invading and occupying forces of Iraq. In other words, he did his job, while all the others allowed themselves to be used as propagandists. I looked to him for honest reporting. That shouldn't even be a sentence, never mind an accolade. And yet.
He also must have been very brave. How many of us can imagine reporting from this long list of imperialist wars? Belfast, Tehran, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Algiers, Kabul, Sarajevo – and that's a partial list.
Fisk's father, Bill Fisk, was a veteran of World War I, and his experiences informed the younger Fisk's lifelong anti-war values. I felt personally indebted to him after he wrote about the false war-worship of the annual tradition of wearing fake poppies, in essays such as "Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?" and "My father threw away his poppy in disgust".
I appreciated Robert Fisk's work. His death diminishes us.
I'll close this with Fisk's own words. I've quoted this essay more than once on wmtc, but one can never have too many reminders about the realities of war.
Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?
Robert Fisk, November 2011
I turned on the television in my Damascus hotel room to witness a dreary sight: all the boys and girls of BBC World wearing their little poppies again.
Bright red they were, with that particularly silly green leaf out of the top – it was never part of the original Lady Haig appeal – and not one dared to appear on screen without it. Do these pathetic men and women know how they mock the dead? I trust that Jon Snow has maintained his dignity by not wearing it.
Now I've mentioned my Dad too many times in The Independent. He died almost 20 years ago so, after today, I think it's time he was allowed to rest in peace, and that readers should in future be spared his sometimes bald wisdom. This is the last time he will make an appearance. But he had strong views about wearing the poppy. He was a soldier of the Great War, Battle of Arras 1918 – often called the Third Battle of the Somme – and the liberation of Cambrai, along with many troops from Canada. The Kaiser Wilhelm's army had charitably set the whole place on fire and he was appalled by the scorched earth policy of the retreating Germans. But of course, year after year, he would go along to the local cenotaph in Birkenhead, and later in Maidstone, where I was born 28 years after the end of his Great War, and he always wore his huge black coat, his regimental tie – 12th Battalion, the King's Liverpool Regiment – and his poppy.
In those days, it was – I recall this accurately, I think – a darker red, blood-red rather than BBC-red, larger than the sorrow-lite version I see on the BBC and without that ridiculous leaf. So my Dad would stand and I would be next to him in my Yardley Court School blazer at 10 years old and later, aged 16, in my Sutton Valence School blazer, with my very own Lady Haig poppy, its long black wire snaking through the material, sprouting from my lapel.
My Dad gave me lots of books about the Great War, so I knew about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo before I went to school – and 47 years before I stood, amid real shellfire, in the real Sarajevo and put my feet on the very pavement footprints where Gavrilo Princip fired the fatal shots.
But as the years passed, old Bill Fisk became very ruminative about the Great War. He learned that Haig had lied, that he himself had fought for a world that betrayed him, that 20,000 British dead on the first day of the Somme – which he mercifully avoided because his first regiment, the Cheshires, sent him to Dublin and Cork to deal with another 1916 "problem" – was a trashing of human life. In hospital and recovering from cancer, I asked him once why the Great War was fought. "All I can tell you, fellah," he said, "was that it was a great waste." And he swept his hand from left to right. Then he stopped wearing his poppy. I asked him why, and he said that he didn't want to see "so many damn fools" wearing it – he was a provocative man and, sadly, I fell out with him in his old age. What he meant was that all kinds of people who had no idea of the suffering of the Great War – or the Second, for that matter – were now ostentatiously wearing a poppy for social or work-related reasons, to look patriotic and British when it suited them, to keep in with their friends and betters and employers. These people, he said to me once, had no idea what the trenches of France were like, what it felt like to have your friends die beside you and then to confront their brothers and wives and lovers and parents. At home, I still have a box of photographs of his mates, all of them killed in 1918.
As a young boy, I also went to Ypres with my Dad, stayed at the "Old Tom Hotel" (it is still there, on the same side of the square as the Cloth Hall) and met many other "old soldiers", all now dead. I remember that they wanted to remember their dead comrades. But above all, they wanted an end to war. But now I see these pathetic creatures with their little sand-pit poppies – I notice that our masters in the House of Commons do the same – and I despise them. Heaven be thanked that the soldiers of the Great War cannot return today to discover how their sacrifice has been turned into a fashion appendage.
Finally, my reading plan (originally here, with updates here and here) put de Waal back on my radar. At Russell Books in Victoria, I found two of his books, and I put two more on hold at my library. I've read one so far, and I'm pleased to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.
De Waal is a primatologist -- he studies primates, the group of mammals that includes apes and humans. He's that rare gem, a high-level scholar who writes with a breezy, accessible style, weaving wonderful examples from his own research and from popular culture.
Our Inner Ape is de Waal's answer to a popular conception of humankind's "animal nature" -- the brutal, violent, combative human, which is kept in check, however imperfectly, by the imposition of human society. It's also an answer to so-called "Social Darwinism" (Darwin did not posit this and would not have approved), which rationalizes greed and selfishness as supposedly innately human.
In wonderfully accessible and entertaining writing, de Waal shows that the animal world is not only home to violent and competitive behaviour, but that empathy, kindness, altruism, and moral choices exist in the natural, non-human world, too -- especially in our nearest evolutionary relative, the apes.
Two species of apes are most closely related to humans -- chimpanzees and the lesser-known bonobos. Where chimps are famously aggressive, violent, individualistic, and solve group conflict with violence, bonobos are matriarchal, highly social, and solve conflicts with -- wait for it -- sex.
Bonobos use sex for conflict resolution, bargaining, and for no reason at all, simply for pleasure. They are all bisexual and will engage in rubbing their genitals together anywhere, any time. When animal groups celebrate -- such as wolves yipping and howling when the alpha female gives birth -- bonobos have an orgy.
Bonobos have been overlooked in the field of primate research, and de Waal explains why. Some of it is prudishness.
In the 1990s, a British camera crew traveled to the remote jungles of Africa to film bonobos only to stop their cameras each time an "embarrassing" scene appeared in the viewfinder. When a Japanese scientist assisting the crew asked they they weren't documenting any sex, he was told "our viewers wouldn't be interested."
But, de Waal believes, based on ample evidence, that the more prevalent reason is
... the fact that bonobos fail to fit established notions about human nature. Believe me, if studies found that they massacre one another, everyone would know about bonobos. Their peacefulness is the real problem. I sometimes imagine what would have happened if we'd known the bonobo first and the chimpanzee only later or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare, and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring, and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!
Here are a bunch of anecdotes from this book that I found fascinating.
* A bonobo with a heart condition was transferred to a new zoo, and had trouble adjusting to his new surroundings. The other bonobos "took him by the hand and led him to where the keepers wanted him, thus showing they understood both the keepers' intentions and Kidogo's problem."
* A small bird crashed into the glass of a bonobo enclosure. The bonobo picked up the bird, and tried to set it on its feet. When that didn't work, the ape climbed a tree, then gently spread the bird's wings, then released it.
* After the death of an alpha female chimpanzee, the observing scientists were unsure of who would become the new matriarch. A disagreement among some male chimps had gotten very heated, and de Waal was sure that it would turn violent and bloody. Then a female rose from her resting place, and quietly sauntered into the middle of the fracas. All eyes were on her. The others started following her, as if in a procession. She simply sat down and started grooming one of the males in the conflict. All the other chimps followed her example and began grooming each other. Everyone calmed down. The new alpha female had gently ended the conflict. Even chimpanzees are capable of this.
* In experiments that are no longer performed for ethical reasons, when monkeys saw that pressing a lever for food resulted in another monkey being shocked, the monkeys would refuse to pull the lever, even to the point of starvation.
* Even among chimpanzees, who can be ruthlessly violent, hunting for meat is a cooperative endeavour, and the meat is always shared among the entire group, whether or not they participated in the hunt.
* de Waal was eager to see a newborn infant being carried by one bonobo female. The infants are apparently difficult to see, "really no more than a little dark blob against a mother's dark tummy". He called to the mother, and pointed at her belly. Then:
Lolita looked up at me, sat down, and took the infant's right hand in her right hand and its left hand in her left hand. This sounds simple, but given that the baby was clinging to her, she had to cross her arms to do so. The movement resembled that of people crossing their arms when grabbing a t-shirt by its hems in order to take it off. She then slowly lifted the baby in the air while turning it around on its axis, unfolding it in front of me. Suspended from its mother's hands, the baby now faced me instead of her. After the baby made a few grimaces and whimpers -- infants hate losing touch with a warm belly -- Lolita quickly tucked it back into her lap.* When the moat around the bonobo enclosure was drained for cleaning, a few teenaged bonobos climbed in to explore. The zoo worker went to turn on the taps to refill the moat, when all the bonobos started screaming and waving their arms, frantically trying to get his attention. Apes can't swim. The zoo worker brought over a ladder; all the bonobos in the moat climbed up, except the smallest one, who was pulled up by one of the other teenagers.
* A female colleague of de Waal's returned to the zoo after a maternity leave, to show the bonobos her infant. (The bonobos had accepted the researcher as one of their own, even sharing food with her.)
The oldest female briefly glanced at the human baby, then disappeared into an adjacent cage. [The female researcher] thought the female was upset, but she had only left to pick up her own newborn. She quickly returned to hold the ape baby up against the glass so that the two infants could look in each other's eyes.
De Waal also demonstrates that much behaviour that is thought of as innate or in-born is in fact learned socially and by example. After a story of how male some male chimpanzees beat a female of their group, he writes:
Even though chimps have been known to use branches and sticks to hit predators, such as leopards, armed attacks on members of one's own species were, until recently, considered uniquely human. And the habit of beating females seems to have spread. ... The copycat spreading of this ugly habit shows the extend to which apes are socially influenced. They often follow the example of others. We should therefore be careful not to jump to conclusions about the "naturalness" of this behavior. Chimpanzee males are not programmed to beat females. Instead, it is something they are capable of doing under certain circumstances. Ingrained behavior is rare in our closest relatives, and it is even rarer in ourselves.
In the same chapter de Waal notes that, "the human species is far too loosely programmed for such highly specific behavior to be genetic." Evolutionary psychologists and apologists for bad behavior cherry-pick tidbits of evidence from the animal world. Human
hunter-gatherer societies were nothing if not cooperative societies.
There was no ruthless capitalism at work there. The same goes for sexual tastes.
An entire cottage industry of studies has sprung up around the theory that every man is looking for a youthful, smooth-skinned, perky-breasted, optimally fertile woman, and that every woman is a gold digger, interested in men only as providers.
Yet male bonobos prefer mature sexual partners. The oldest female in the group has the most power and is most sought-after as a mate. At different times in human history, different body types have been elevated as the ideal; the fleshy, plus-sized nudes painted by the artist Peter Paul Rubens are often cited as an example of this.
I'll close this post with a quote from the chapter "Violence".
Given the popular use and abuse of evolutionary theory, it's hardly surprising that Darwinism and natural selection have become synonymous with unchecked competition. Darwin himself, however, was anything but a Social Darwinist. On the contrary, he believed there was room for kindness in both human nature and in the natural world. We urgently need this kindness, because the question facing a growing world population is not so much whether or not we can handle crowding, but if we will be fair and just in the distribution of resources. Will we go for all-out competition or will we do the humane thing? Our close relatives can teach us some important lessons here. They show us that compassion is not a recent weakness going against the grain of nature but a formidable power that is as much a part of who and what we are as the competitive tendencies it seeks to overcome.