4.06.2020

listening to joni: #13: chalk mark in a rainstorm

Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm, 1988

After writing my first negative review in this series, I was half-dreading listening to the album. Happily, I ended up pleased and relieved. Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm is a solid album with some lovely and memorable songs. There are choices that don't work for me, and one truly awful song, but overall the album is a great improvement over the previous Dog Eat Dog.

On Chalk Mark, Joni's writing is strongest when she's at her most topical. "Tea Leaf Prophecy," quotes the old spiritual and anti-war song "Down by the Riverside," using one of my most cherished lines, "study war no more". The song tells an unlikely love story of two people who met during the Second World War -- inspired by Joni's own parents. With the song's rhythmic refrain "study war no more" and "lay down your arms," not only have the lovers chosen love over war, but we are asked to do the same.

In "The Beat of Black Wings," the narrator meets a "young soldier" in a bar. The war had no meaning -- "propaganda piss on 'em" -- and has left him damaged.
There's a war zone inside me
I can feel things exploding
I can't even hear the fucking music playing
For the beat of the beat of black wings
I am reminded of the black crow on Hejira, but these black wings are far more sinister.
They want you they need you
They train you to kill
To be a pin on some map. . .
The old pick the wars
We die in 'em
To the beat of the beat of black wings
"Lakota" is a lament for Indigenous people, not only for the distant past, but for the present, where their land is being stolen again, for mining "the deadly ore". (In "Chinese Cafe," on Wild Things Run Fast, Joni also refers to this deadly ore: "Uranium money is booming in the old home town now".)

"Lakota" features a Native American chant, sung by Iron Eyes Cody. Cody was the "crying Indian" featured in PSAs many of us grew up with -- before his actual heritage was revealed. (His original name was Espera Oscar de Corti; he was born in Sicily.) No doubt Joni would be accused of cultural appropriation now, but this was not known at time time. (I do wonder if it had been known, if she would have cared.)

Back Cover

"Cool Water" -- written by Bob Nolan, with revised lyrics by Joni, and featuring some vocals by Willie Nelson -- and "A Bird That Whistles" -- an arrangement of the traditional song "Corinna, Corinna" -- have a similar earthy feel as the songs rejecting war and the destruction of the earth.

In "The Reoccurring Dream," Joni taps a familiar theme -- the dead-end of consumer culture -- using some samples of advertising-speak. I have mixed feelings about this. Sometimes I feel it interrupts the song and is too obvious, other times I like the inventiveness of the sound collage and the cumulative effect of the repetition.

"My Secret Place" has a synth-pop feel and the sound of a deliberate attempt at a radio track or single, as they were once called. It features prominent vocals by Peter Gabriel, although not quite a duet. It's not a bad song, and I like the imagery of the "secret place" that we go with a lover. It just feels facile and simple.

"Snakes and Ladders" combines two Joni themes -- materialism, and the ups and downs of a love affair. I hear it as an update on Harry's House from Hissing of Summer Lawns, the man trapped on the hamster wheel to keep his trophy wife satisfied. It's a duet with Don Henley, and it's a bit of a mess.

And then there's "Dancin' Clown", possibly the worst song and production Joni has ever written. This is "fool for love," upbeat edition. Bizarre vocal appearances by Billy Idol and Tom Petty push the song from a silly throwaway to just awful. Ah well. She's human.

The album cover

Joni designed the cover art, using photographs taken by Larry Klein, her partner at the time. The front features a portrait of Joni with her face partially obscured by a blanket with a Native American design and a hat. Inside, she is lying on the ground covered by the blanket, wearing jeans and sneakers, the hat beside her head. A snake is coiled at the opposite corner of the frame.

In her own words

The relentless sexism and condescension that featured so prominently in early reviews of Joni's music seems to have abated. So instead of "bad critic comment of the album," I'll use quotes from a feature story or interview that accompanied the album release.
I have to keep my spirit high. And to keep my creativity flowing, I've learned not to be afraid of failing—because out of the ashes of failure may come a great idea.
-- Quoted in Portrait of an Artist in Her Prime, Nicholas Jennings, Maclean's magazine, April 4, 1988

Guest vocals

This album is notable for the many guest appearances by other singers -- five musicians on four different songs, plus background vocals by some name artists. I don't know if this was something Joni wanted to try, or if it was a bid for a more commercial sound. It really stands out as unnecessary.

Other musicians on this album

Drums, percussion, Manu Katché; Larry Klein; Thomas Dolby
Bass, Larry Klein
Guitar, Michael Landau, Steve Stevens
Saxophone, Wayne Shorter
Organ, Steven Lindsay
Vocals, Manu Katche, Larry Klein, Benjamin Orr, Don Henley, Iron Eyes Cody, Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin, Julie Last, Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Tom Petty

4.05.2020

streaming follow-up: we need a universal watchlist app: updated!

On my recent post about streaming -- five reasons streaming is still better than cable and etc. -- I alluded to something towards the end of the post that I want to spotlight here.

We need a universal watchlist app. Perhaps several universal watchlist apps, so we can choose the one that suits us best.

This app would combine all your watchlists, from all the different streaming services you use, into one list. I wouldn't have to look through Netflix, Crave, Prime, and Britbox - not to mention some free services that once in a while have something good.

I wouldn't have to wonder, Where did I see that show? Was that Netflix or Prime or Crave? Didn't we see something good on Tubi? Or was Hoopla?

All my watchlists across all services would be combined.

Reelgood and JustWatch may do this, but it's unclear. I'll try them both and report back.

One thing right off the top: Reelgood doesn't include Crave, even on their Canada site. Crave is where Canadians can legally watch HBO, Showtime, and Starz movies and series, so it's important. I did email Reelgood to ask if they can pick up Crave. JustWatch has Crave, so it's possible to do.

More info when I have it.

Important update below.

*  *  *  *

I've been searching for this for a while, but I didn't know quite what to call it. I was coming up with services like Cinetrack, Seriesguide, and TVTime -- there's a list here. This would tell you where you could stream a particular movie or series, and you could track what you've watched. But they are more streaming search engines than feed aggregators.

Plex has the idea -- all your media streaming through one app -- but it works with media you've purchased or downloaded, not streaming.

I just had no idea what to call this thing I was dreaming of, until I recently saw this post: Forget universal search; give me a universal watch list. That's when the light bulb went off.

Now I've found two services that sound like they can do this. The strange thing is, they are both referred to as streaming search engines. Yet both services claim you can create a master watchlist and click through to the service through this.

Even comparisons of Reelgood and JustWatch calls them streaming search apps.

Maybe that's what the universal watchlist will be called?

I'm going to try both and report back.

*  *  *  *

Update. Reelgood or JustWatch? Neither.

Neither service works properly. Choosing your streaming apps and adding shows to a watchlist is simple enough. But neither Reelgood or JustWatch functions as a streaming hub or universal watchlist on either Roku or AppleTV.

Reelgood has more streaming services -- but not Crave, which Canadian viewers need.

JustWatch has Crave, but is missing Kanopy and dozens of free services. Part of the beauty of the universal watchlist would be the ability to access the bits of decent content on each of the free apps.

But more importantly, neither of them works properly on a TV. They might function properly for people who watch everything on their computer or phone. But the quest for a universal watchlist app continues.

4.03.2020

what i'm reading: political graphic nonfiction: emma goldman, muhammad ali, eugene v. debs

I have been collecting graphic nonfiction with leftist political themes. I just love these books and am indulging myself in buying them.

I was planning to review them, but I've decided to simply post images of the covers, the names of the books and the creators, and a quote from the person, group, or idea the book is about.



Dangerous Woman: A Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman, written and illustrated by Sharon Rudahl, edited by Paul Buhle
The greatest bulwark of capitalism is militarism. The very moment the latter is undermined, capitalism will totter. True, we have no conscription; that is, men are not usually forced to enlist in the army, but we have developed a far more exacting and rigid force--necessity. Is it not a fact that during industrial depressions there is a tremendous increase in the number of enlistments? The trade of militarism may not be either lucrative or honorable, but it is better than tramping the country in search of work, standing in the bread line, or sleeping in municipal lodging houses. (1908)



Muhammad Ali, written by Sybille Titeux de la Croix, illustrated by Amazing Améziane
If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years. (1968)



Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography, written by Paul Buhle and Steve Max, illustrated by Noah Van Sciver
Foolish and vain indeed is the workingman who makes the color of his skin the stepping-stone to his imaginary superiority. The trouble is with his head, and if he can get that right he will find that what ails him is not superiority but inferiority, and that he, as well as the Negro he despises, is the victim of wage-slavery, which robs him of what he produces and keeps both him and the Negro tied down to the dead level of ignorance and degradation.

The man who seeks to arouse prejudice among workingmen is not their friend. He who advises the white wage-worker to look down upon the black wage-worker is the enemy of both. (1904)

4.02.2020

five reasons streaming is still better than cable, even if the price tag is the same (plus a long story mostly for myself)

If you stream movies and TV series, you know that the proliferation of streaming channels has had mixed results for consumers.

Many shows that were formerly on Netflix have been pulled by their media parents, and are now found on different streaming apps. At the same time, Netflix's monthly price has increased -- so you're paying more for less.

Those who still want access to the shows no longer on Netflix need to subscribe to an additional streaming service; Disney (which has all the Marvel properties) and Britbox are two big culprits.

Two other very popular streaming services, Crave (owned by Bell Media) and Prime (owned by Amazon), have exclusive rights to many enticing shows, including all the HBO and Showtime series. Recently Bell Media made an annoying cash-grab by offering a first season of a given show on Crave, then requiring an additional subscription to Movies+HBO or Starz to watch the rest.

Many people have observed that if you want a few of these services, the price tag will rival the cost of cable.

I recently decided to subscribe to whatever streaming apps I want. Previously I was holding it to Netflix and Crave. But we spend next to nothing on entertainment now, and watching movies and series is a principal form of relaxation for me. I'm fortunate that I can afford it now.

So I added a bunch of channels/apps/services/whatever (what are we calling these now?), and the combined price does rival our former cable bill.

However, I still find streaming far superior to cable. Here's why.

1. NO ADS. Paying for TV and still having every show stuffed with commercials is an indignity and should be considered theft. The paid streaming services are ad-free.

2. Streaming lets you purchase only the channels you want. Pay for what you use, don't pay for what you never use. When we had cable, I found 95% of it completely useless.

3. The low monthly prices for most streaming services give you flexibility. You can get an app for a month or two to watch a specific show, then easily unsubscribe.

4. Which leads to the next reason: there are no installation fees or other rip-off costs.

5. Which leads to reason #5: you don't have to deal with telcos at all. All you need is internet.

In conclusion, streaming > cable.


* * * *

I was looking back through some of my early posts about cable, access to baseball, Netflix, Roku, and etc. I had forgotten about some of the twists and turns I went through. I want to document it all here. Totally boring stuff, but I want to have it in one place.

1. In New York, we subscribed to Netflix, back when it was only a DVD-by-mail service. Netflix was a huge game-changer for us, as renting quality movies in our neighbourhood was always problematic. We subscribed to Netflix for DVDs for several years.

2. When we emigrated to Canada, I knew there was no Netflix (at the time), but I heard there was a Netflix-type service called Zip.ca.

3. I subscribed to Zip, but there were issues. One, they sent you movies in random order. Netflix didn't guarantee you would receive movies in the exact order of your queue, but you got something close to it. Since we don't watch blockbuster movies, we almost always received our top three choices. With Zip, it was totally random. The next baseball season would roll around, and I hadn't seen my priority movies. I did find a workaround, but it was limited.

4. At the same time, we were spending a lot of money to see our out-of-town team's baseball games. We had to subscribe to cable at a high level, then add the MLB package, plus we subscribed to MLB online, so Allan could watch games while at work (which was at least half the games for the week, sometimes more). But we couldn't watch MLB only online, because Rogers capped our internet usage!

5. In 2006 I lost my job and was unemployed or very under-employed for many years. Spending less was a priority, one that we often failed to achieve.

6. In 2010, Netflix came to Canada as a streaming-only service. There wasn't much on it.

7. In 2011, my workaround with Zip -- which depended on a willing and creative customer service person -- ended. (Soon after that, Zip was purchased by Rogers and became a standard pay-per-view service.) I subscribed to a different DVD-by-mail service, called Cinemail. It sucked and I quickly cancelled it.

8. In 2012, two extraordinary things happened at that same time: my friend M@ told me about Teksavvy, and I learned we could watch MLB through a Roku streaming device. Minds were blown, worlds were rocked.

I'll let an old post tell this part of the story.
In February, I asked for help with my movie-season problem. We had been getting special treatment from Zip, but once that ended, Zip became useless again. I knew there had to be a better way. It's the 21st Century, for crissakes. Why can't we get on-demand baseball, movies, and whatever else we want to watch? First world problems? Absolutely! But that's where I live.

In the past, no suggestions really worked for us. We couldn't get rid of cable TV, because we needed it to watch baseball. We couldn't watch baseball online, because we had a cap on our bandwidth usage. (And because of our work schedules, we had to subscribe to baseball through cable and internet!) I didn't want to watch movies via Netflix only on computer. I didn't want to buy a gaming system just to watch movies. Nothing was quite right.

And then, everything came together.

M@ started it all by identifying the root of the problem: the first step was to get rid of Rogers and their ridiculous bandwidth cap. Switching to TekSavvy was fast and easy. We save money, we get more, and suddenly... we have choices.

Next, we bought two Roku devices, one for each TV. Allan drove to Buffalo to make sure we were set up for the baseball season, but they may now be shipping to Canada.

Next, Roku began to support Netflix Canada.

And next, Netflix Canada has hugely improved since I first checked it out. It has even improved in the last two weeks, growing by leaps and bounds.

I thought that getting rid of cable would be slightly inconvenient, but I'd adjust. That's because I didn't know what awaited me through streaming, via Roku.

Baseball without commercials! (At least the ones between innings.)

Movies! And lots of them. No more waiting to see what we receive in the mail - but without having to watch on a computer, or having to hook up a computer to the TV.

And not just movies. The small amount of TV I care about is suddenly now available on demand. Without commercials. . . . .

From the earliest days of Netflix DVDs-by-mail and cable Pay-Per-View, I used to wonder when we'd be able to watch any movie or any TV show, anytime we wanted, in our own homes. I just moved one giant step closer to that.

9. We learned how to create a wireless VPN, so we would have two IP addresses, one in Canada and one in the US, so we were able to access both versions of Netflix, plus baseball without blackouts.

10. In 2016, Netflix cracked down on VPNs. You could still watch US Netflix on a computer, but I could no longer get it wirelessly through Roku. (VPN providers still claim that you can, but really... no.) Fortunately by this time, Netflix Canada had improved significantly.

11. Also in 2016, Amazon's streaming service, then called Amazon Instant Video, finally was available in Canada.

12. In 2018, we purchased an AppleTV, which has exclusive rights to Crave -- which has all the HBO and Showtime shows. Turns out it gives much better access to MLB than Roku. Nice!

13. In 2019, I gave myself permission to add any streaming service I want, to have maximum options. I am pretty happy about this.

14. One last bit. I am dreaming of an app that would let viewers track their watchlists across different services. Not a media server, because I won't have the shows downloaded. And not quite one of these, as they are all limited in different ways. I want a master watchlist that can click through to the show on the appropriate streaming service.

4.01.2020

what i'm reading: graphic adaptation of anne frank's diary

Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, is many things to many people.

It's the most widely read and recognizable Holocaust narrative.

It's one of the most common ways to teach young people about the Holocaust specifically and genocidal in general.

It's a book for all ages. I read it as a child, as a teen, and as an adult, and I understood it on different levels at different times of my life -- and that's probably a common experience. If you haven't re-read the Diary as an adult, I highly recommend it.

The Diary has been translated into 70 languages and more than 25 million copies have been printed worldwide. It continues to be read in schools all over the world. This is partly because the first-person account personalizes the experience, makes it relatable, in a way that conventional histories cannot. But I believe the impact of the Diary endures because Anne was such a talented writer.

This fact is often overlooked in discussions of the Diary, overshadowed by the experiences Anne wrote about and the extremity of her living situation. You will often see reviewers mention "Anne's voice" -- and there's no doubt that Anne's appealing personality adds to the compelling nature of the Diary. But the girl who was hiding in that Amsterdam attic was a talented writer, and I believe that fact, more than anything else, has made the Diary transcend culture, time, and place, and is the central reason it endures.

Anne was a writer. Proof of that is in the Diary itself: the more she wrote, the better her writing became. She was becoming a writer, as all writers are, always. It's obvious that at some point, Anne realized her diary might be shared with the outside world, and she upped her game. Anne dreamed of becoming a famous writer -- a dream that came true, without her.

The graphic adaptation of the Diary does many things well, but also strains against the limits of the form. To expand on this, I'm doing something here that I rarely do: quoting from other reviews.

What I really liked

David Polonsky's illustrations are gorgeous -- lavish, rich in detail, suffused with emotion. Ari Folman uses the graphic novel form to its utmost advantage.

It's disappointing when graphic novel creators use illustrations as they would be used in a conventional novel -- illustrating what's already in the text -- rather than as an integral part of the story itself, moving the story forward in time and meaning.

As Ruth Franklin wrote in this New York Times review,
As Folman acknowledges in an adapter’s note, the text, preserved in its entirety, would have resulted in a graphic novel of 3,500 pages. At times he reproduces whole entries verbatim, but more often he diverges freely from the original, collapsing multiple entries onto a single page and replacing Anne’s droll commentary with more accessible (and often more dramatic) language. Polonsky’s illustrations, richly detailed and sensitively rendered, work marvelously to fill in the gaps, allowing an image or a facial expression to stand in for the missing text and also providing context about Anne’s historical circumstances that is, for obvious reasons, absent from the original. The tightly packed panels that result, in which a line or two adapted from the “Diary” might be juxtaposed with a bit of invented dialogue between the Annex inhabitants or a dream vision of Anne’s, do wonders at fitting complex emotions and ideas into a tiny space — a metaphor for the Secret Annex itself.
Here are a few examples of the skillful and inventive artwork.


Anne imagines her future.


The graphic adaptation beautifully captures Anne's personality and her voice -- not just her longing and frustration, which is more widely known, but her sarcasm and her sardonic wit. Parts of the Diary are funny, because Anne was funny. We shouldn't be afraid of that humour. Laughing with Anne is not laughing at the Holocaust. If anything, the humour only deepens our understanding of her tragedy, because it makes more real to us.

What didn't work for me

In The Atlantic, Stav Ziv notes that "the shortcomings of the adaptation are illuminating in their way, and underscore what makes the original so potent". I have to agree.
The difference between the two versions, however, is that by this point in the diary, you've been in her head for so long that her extinguished voice and sudden disappearance crush you with the weight of the world. You can imagine heavy boots on the stairs, pounding on the bookcase, and cruel orders spewed at the shocked residents. This scene isn't described in detail in either version. In fact, the afterwords are virtually identical. But the diary itself sets the reader up to fill in the horrifying blanks in a way the adaptation does not. They weren't coming for an unknowable character in hiding. They were coming for Frank.

It's not that Folman and Polonsky haven't added a valuable interpretation. They have. The volume contains some stunning and poetic drawings, such as a two-page spread that visualizes a passage in which the diarist describes "the eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds" and "in our desperate search for a way out we keep bumping into each other." But those images are poignant complements to Frank's words, not sufficient replacements. To this point, Folman wrote in the adapter's note that he had "grave reservations" editing "while still being faithful to the entire work." On the whole, the story becomes shorter, neater, and more naive. That might make sense if the adaptation were a primer geared toward children who aren't ready to tackle the diary yet, but the inclusion of entries on sex and Frank's lesson on the female anatomy indicates otherwise.

The point is also not that illustrations or graphic novels are less suited to tell stories of the Holocaust. Those mediums and so many others, including artificial intelligence and virtual reality, offer opportunities to experiment with new ways to share narratives that humanize and resonate—all the more crucial as we get further from the history and those who lived it. But the format should be tailored to the story, and in the case of a story that power lies squarely in the quality of the writing and the vividness of a teenager's thoughts, the diary provides depth that is hard to replicate in other versions.

The movies, plays, and graphic adaptations that Frank's diary inspired are entry points, thought provokers, or conversation starters, not substitutes. The most promising way to keep her story in the forefront of our mind is to keep reading her diary, but also to continue allowing the original source to spark a broad range of retellings and interpretive works of art that might highlight different aspects and reach new audiences. All together, they foster discussion and remind readers of the smart, vivacious, and complicated girl who went into hiding at 13 and died at 15.

The graphic adaptation does contain long sections of Frank's last entries—the ones that make it so distressing to see her account end as abruptly as it does. But the omissions leading up to them soften the blow. More than any particular fact or event, the graphic version is missing the sense of familiarity that slowly builds, more strongly and deeply than you realize, until the moment that this friend, this stand-in for you, confronts the thing she'd feared for so long: the moment that stole her fantasies of her life "after the war" out from under her. The last pages of the adaptation feel like the end of a story, not the end of a life.
For me, it comes down to this: I loved reading this book, and I hope it moves readers to search out and read the original. If this was to be a reader's only contact with The Diary of Anne Frank, I would be both relieved and disappointed. I recommend this version without hesitation -- but I hope you will re-read the original, too.

3.30.2020

a reading plan for 2020: the (second) year of the biography plus... more?

On the final day of 2017, I wrote a short list of people and topics I wanted to know more about, authors I wanted to sample but somehow never did, and unfinished reading challenges: what i haven't read and what i'm not reading (again, a post that had a fair number of comments... still hoping to restore them).**

From there, I dubbed 2019 The Year of the Biography (just for my personal reading, of course). I ended up reading three massive tomes on the lives of Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali.

I also read three graphic biographies: the graphic adaptation of Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl (which I hope to write about), and biographies of Muhammad Ali and Emma Goldman.

These weren't the only books I read in 2019, but they dominated my reading time.

Social distancing and the absence of library books inspired me to purchase three more biographies, and continue the trend for 2020: Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Hermann, and Galileo: Watcher of the Skies by David Wootton.

Only after ordering these did I realize they were all included in that 2017 "what i haven't read" post. To that end, I'm also finally going to finish Taylor Branch's King Trilogy (I stopped halfway through the final book) and Siegfried Sassoon's Sherston Trilogy. (Thank you, social distancing!)

I'd also like to get back to my weekly chapters of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 and Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 which got left behind when we decided to move west. This, however, might be too many balls in the air.

Taking the advice of a dear friend, I am allowing myself to give up on my elusive Shakespeare project, begun in 2003 and abandoned in 2005, but still nagging me more than a decade later.

** This is not The List. The List is ridiculously long. The List is not so much a to-read list, as a place to consult when thinking about what I might want to read next.

3.29.2020

is my body keeping score? personal insights (plus brain dump) after reading the book by bessel van der kolk

When I wrote my beyond-rave review of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk, I purposely omitted some personal reaction and connections I had to the book. Here they are.

Moving forward with my own healing

On the list of physical issues that can result from trauma, fibromyalgia is one of the most common -- along with depression, anxiety, stomach issues, and chronic fatigue. I've long ignored the connection between my past experiences and fibromyalgia, but now I feel ready to take it on.

After resisting this for years, I want to try EMDR, for its potential to reduce my fibromyalgia symptoms.

When I made this decision, I thought it might be futile, as I assumed I wouldn't be able to find a practitioner. To my surprise, there are many, not far away! Not in our town or region, but in the closest more populous area. That's about three hours away, but doable.

(Funny how a three-hour drive now seems like no big deal! It helps that it's a beautiful drive through the woods, with mountain views -- not three hours on the 401 or I-95.)

Right now we are all on COVID-19 lock-down, but when the pandemic is over, I am going to contact some EMDR practitioners.

Below is a timeline of how my thoughts on this evolved. Please feel free to skip to the next section, called "The inevitable and useless thought".

EMDR and PTSD

For many years, I've considered myself done -- done with therapy, done with support groups, done with therapeutic activities like Model Mugging and public speaking. Done with dealing with the aftermath of being raped. Also done with resolving any childhood trauma, the result of growing up with a mentally ill, abusive parent. I've done a ton of work around this, and then drew a line under it.

The thought of venturing again into this territory -- sexual assault trauma -- just made me angry. Enough already! It was so long ago. How can it possibly still be affecting me?! I determined I was fully healed, and that was that.

And it probably could be that, for the rest of my life. But maybe I could do better. Maybe I could feel better.

In 2014, I went to France with my mother, and had a rare insight that led me to a huge revelation: PTSD is forever. It is a permanent condition. With work, you can learn how to manage it. But there is no post-PTSD. I believed I was no longer experiencing it -- but that was because I usually don't remember my night terrors. (Posts on this: here and here.)

In 2015, I saw a therapist for anxiety. I already had medication, and my doctor suggested using my employer's EAP to get some cognitive-behaviour therapy. I met a wonderful therapist, and had a few grueling (not CBT) sessions.

This therapist told me there is a strong link between trauma and fibromyalgia, and she suggested I try EMDR. That was the first time I heard of it. I wrote about this on my fibromyalgia blog: here.

In 2016, I read The Evil Hours, a social and cultural history of PTSD (review here). It's an excellent book, and made a big impression on me.

The author is dismissive, even contemptuous, towards EMDR. Whether or not that attitude is justified, I dropped the idea. The thought of doing any further work around trauma angered me. This book gave me permission, so to speak, to not go there.

In 2017, we visited our family in Oregon. (This is when the idea of moving west was born!) (And these are some of the people I would soon be visiting if we weren't under COVID-19 lock-down.) One of my nephews is a therapist, and a psychology professor. I asked him about EMDR. Turns out he is a qualified practitioner. He had some encouraging things to say that, in my mind, brought it back to the realm of the possible.

Also in 2017, we had two family weddings, plus another in 2018 -- which means more opportunities to see my nieces and nephews. At one of these, we were hanging out with a different nephew, who is a holistic medicine practitioner -- acupuncture and craniosacral work. He recommended The Body Keeps the Score.

In late 2018, we relocated from a sprawling suburb in southern Ontario to a remote region of Vancouver Island.

In 2020, I read the book.

Throughout, van der Kolk lists various physical conditions that are related to trauma -- and fibromyalgia always tops the list. (Other conditions are depression, anxiety, and fatigue.) There it was in black and white.

This must have come at just the right time, because all of a sudden, my resistance to the idea was gone. I'm ready to explore another path to healing.

Some other things I've written about my own PTSD:

the tyranny of the subconscious

my subconscious is an annoying bitch

i need a canada for my subconscious

The inevitable and useless thought

The Body Keeps the Score is full of brief references to many horrific forms of abuse. Compared to these, my own experience seems very small.

When I was part of a community of sexual assault and domestic violence survivors*, I frequently thought, What happened to me is nothing compared to what happened to them. I minimized my own trauma relative to someone else's. It's pretty common to do this.

I felt this again while reading The Body Keeps the Score, and you may experience the same feeling. But here's what I've learned.

Maybe what this person endured is objectively worse than what happened to you. Maybe it wasn't. But true or not, it's irrelevant.

Nothing is to be gained from these comparisons. No one is helped by them. No pain is alleviated. And many opportunities may be lost.

Here's the thing. Just as the trauma was not your choice, your brain and your body's reactions to it were not choices. Our brains' reaction to trauma is wholly involuntary.

You did not choose to have night terrors or panic attacks or hypervigilance, or any of the many physical responses to trauma. Your body responded automatically, from a deep, primitive part of the brain, the part that is programmed for your survival.

How you choose to deal with trauma, given enough support and resources, is a choice. But becoming traumatized and the subsequent changes in your brain are not a choice.

It doesn't matter if someone else thinks your experience isn't awful enough to give you PTSD.

Actually, it doesn't even matter if you think it is!

Those are judgments, and the deep, emotional brain is not subject to judgments. It just is.

At some point, I made a decision to let go of the comparisons and the judgment. I can look back to an event decades ago, through the distance of time and all the protective barriers of my rational mind, and think, That shouldn't still be bothering me. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but come on, it's been nearly 40 years. Enough already!

But that's my conscious mind speaking, separated from the trauma by time, language, culture, and all the layers of my rational self. When the trauma speaks, that's when I wake up screaming.

In order to heal -- in order to give ourselves the space in which the possibility of healing exists -- we must release ourselves from these judgments. Because even when they are true, they're irrelevant.

Think the thought. Feel the feeling. Put it aside. Carry on.

Brain dump

-- I'm always a proponent of using medication like SSRIs to treat anxiety and depression, and always encourage people to at least try meds. Despite the fact that the drugs enrich the disgustingly corrupt pharmaceutical industry, I have seen meds save relationships, and save lives. The Body Keeps the Score taught me about the limits of medications. I understood that these medications may be over-prescribed, but I didn't understand either the extent or the dangers of this, as I do now.

-- Similarly, I'm always a proponent of talk therapy. When I used to do public speaking about my recovery from sexual assault, I always credited talk therapy as a way to release the poison. The Body Keeps the Score taught me about the limits of talk therapy to effect PTSD and other trauma reactions. Trauma -- especially the sustained traumas of child abuse and neglect -- occurs in a place in the brain where there is no language, a place before language. Survivors of childhood trauma often cannot process talk therapy, because they cannot access their memories in words.

Trauma often blocks memory. When it is remembered, it is recalled in disconnected bits and pieces. Adults who experience trauma can use language to weave together a narrative about their trauma, but that story is a reflection trauma -- not the trauma itself.

I might not be explaining this well. Van der Kolk touches on this again and again, with both the clinical observations and the neuroscience to back it up.

-- Some of the studies that are used to test various neuroscience theories are fascinating. Here's one small example.
Alexander McFarlane is studying how exposure to combat changes previously normal brains. The Australian Department of Defence asked his research group to measure the effects of deployment to combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan on mental and biological functioning, including brain-wave patterns. In the initial phase McFarlane and his colleagues measured the qEEG in 179 combat troops four months prior to and four months after each successive deployment to the Middle East.

They found that the total number of months in combat over a three-year period was associated with a progressive decrease in alpha power at the back of the brain. This area, which monitors the state of the body and regulates such elementary processes as sleep and hunger, ordinarily has the highest level of alpha waves of any region in the brain, particularly when people close their eyes.

As we have seen, alpha is associated with relaxation. The decrease in alpha power in these soldiers represents a state of persistent agitation. At the same time the brain waves at the front of the brain, which normally have high levels of beta, show a progressive slowing with each deployment. The soldiers gradually develop frontal-lobe activity that resembles that of children with ADHD, which interferes with their executive functioning and capacity of focused attention.

The net effect is that arousal, which is supposed to provide us with the energy needed to engage in day-to-day tasks, no longer helps these soldiers to focus on ordinary tasks. It simply makes them agitated and restless. At this stage of McFarlane's study, it is too early to know if any of these soldiers will develop PTSD, and only time will tell to what degree these brains will readjust to the pace of civilian life.
-- One of healing pathways van der Kolk writes about is the use of therapeutic theatre. One project he mentions is "Theatre of War", which uses the tragedies of Ancient Greece to help give language and healing to PTSD sufferers. This reminded me that I once had a strong interest in the history of theatre, now long forgotten in the annals of Things That I Used to Know.

Further info on Theatre of War:

How Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Help Veterans Deal with PTSD, written by a veteran who initially dismissed the idea of this as total bullshit (vice.com)

Theatre of War: Sophocles' Message for American Veterans (The New Yorker)

On YouTube: 36 minutes, more than an hour -- and incredible, five minutes with the creator of the program here.

-- Reading about neurofeedback was super interesting. In this process, a person learns to control the functioning of different areas of their brain! The results of the studies are quite amazing. It's been especially useful treating ADD and ADHD. It is generally not covered by insurance, and so, rarely used.

-------
* When I did training with a rape-crisis centre, and later, with this sexual violence intervention program, I met many survivors and listened to their stories. Many of them had been victims of child sexual assault -- incest. This is much more common than most people realize. And it is seldom a one-time event. It's often something endured repeatedly for years. Child sexual abuse is a root cause of much substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, high-risk sexual behaviour, suicide attempts, inability to maintain relationships, and untold mental illness.

3.27.2020

what i'm reading: the body keeps the score by bessel van der kolk

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma is famous among trauma survivors and the professionals who treat them. I can say without hyperbole or exaggeration that it's one of the most fascinating and meaningful books I've ever read.

The Body Keeps the Score is divided into two parts.

The first part of the book examines the brain's and body's physical response to trauma. There are essentially two kinds of trauma: the sustained, multiple traumas of childhood abuse and neglect, and adult trauma from a specific event. Many people, of course, survive multiple traumas, as both children and adults.

For me, this part of the book was absolutely revelatory. Bessel van der Kolk explains the neuroscience of trauma -- and the many scientific studies and clinical observations that have led to this understanding -- in clear, plain language, using lots of analogies and examples. I am not a fast reader, and I struggle with poor concentration from fibromyalgia, but I tore through the first part of this book.

I already knew that trauma changes the brain, but my knowledge was general and a bit vague. For example, I knew that people a traumatic event can produce permanent changes in the body's so-called fight-or-flight response. With PTSD, our bodies can be in a state of permanent emergency. The Body Keeps the Score expanded and refined my knowledge of this tremendously, especially the connection between that perceived state of emergency and physical issues -- gastrointenstinal issues, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, and other issues.

The second part of the book introduces readers to "paths to recovery" -- various types of therapies and therapeutic activities that have proven to be effective with trauma survivors, some remarkably so. For each modality, van der Kolk gives you real-life examples, the results of studies, and the neuroscience behind the results -- why the activity helps, how it works on the brain. Many of the therapies are unconventional and surprising but the documented results are unmistakable.

These paths to recovery include EMDR (which I've written about a bit on my fibromyalgia blog), psychomotor therapy, neuro-feedback, yoga-based therapy, and trauma-informed theatre workshops, and group singing, among others.

This is not advice that, for example, exercise or yoga makes you feel better. That may or may not be true, but van der Kolk writes about therapeutic yoga taught by instructors with a deep understanding of trauma and PTSD.

There is a lot of science in this book, but if you're not generally a science reader, don't let that stop you. The author is amazingly skilled at weaving together his own clinical observations and case histories with the neuroscience. His voice is warm and friendly, and his writing is highly readable.

The profound disappointment: the rejection of the Developmental Trauma diagnosis

The Body Keeps the Score is also a bitter, severe, profoundly discouraging -- and, it seems, entirely justified -- critique of the psychiatric establishment. Van der Kolk is a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, and he's not opposed to the use of medication to treat mental illness. But he demonstrates the tendency of his profession to over-prescribe medications as an expedient and profitable approach, with results generally no better than a short-term band-aid.

I was especially struck by a laundry-list of diagnoses that are doled out to children, while the root cause -- abuse -- is overlooked. Hyperactivity/Attention Deficit Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and several others are treated as causes rather than effects -- secondary conditions stemming from trauma.

One of van der Kolk's greatest disappointments has been the psychiatric establishment's refusal to include a diagnosis of Development Trauma Disorder in the hallowed DSM. (I assume readers know what the DSM is, and something about its troubling history.) Because children's brains are still developing, trauma has an extreme and long-term influence on their ability to cope with the world around them. Developmental trauma, as van der Kolk convincingly demonstrates, occurs when a child's brain does not develop properly, as a result of sustained childhood trauma.

[There is something about van der Kolk's quest for this official diagnosis here, here, and here. One of van der Kolk's proposals can be seen here.)

The absence of this diagnosis is catastrophic, as funding, research, treatment, and insurance coverage largely depends on DSM definitions. Van der Kolk and his more enlightened colleagues have continued their work despite the DSM exclusion, training other colleagues and opening trauma centres (mental health facilities with programs informed by the understanding of Development Trauma) wherever possible.

But in The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk makes clear that without the DSM diagnosis, this work -- always an uphill battle -- will be severely restricted.

The social determinants of trauma, and mental health

The book ends with an impassioned plea about the social determinants of trauma.

Poverty breeds trauma and trauma breeds poverty. People who were abused and neglected during childhood grow up with little or no emotional resiliency. They can't finish school, can't get and keep decent employment. They are in unstable and violent relationships, they drink and drug heavily, they are compulsively drawn to dangerous situations, they are incarcerated. If they have children they are likely to continue the cycle of neglect and/or abuse.  (I have read only one other book that draws a link between child sexual abuse and poverty, David K Shipler's The Working Poor.)

From the epilogue [all emphasis mine].
...We know not only how to treat trauma but also, increasingly, how to prevent it.

And yet, after attending another wake for a teenager who was killed in a drive-by shooting in the Blue Hill Avenue section of Boston or after reading about the latest school budget cuts in impoverished cities and towns, I find myself close to despair. In many ways we seem to be regressing, with measures like the callous congressional elimination of food stamps for kids whose parents are unemployed or in jail; with the stubborn opposition to universal health care in some quarters; with psychiatry's obtuse refusal to make connection between psychic suffering and social conditions; with the refusal to prohibit the sale or possession of weapons whose only purpose is to kill larger numbers of human beings; and with our tolerance for incarcerating a huge segment of our population, wasting their lives as well as our resources.

Discussions of PTSD still tend to focus on recently returned soldiers, victims of terrorist bombings, or survivors of terrible accidents. But trauma remains a much larger public health issue, arguably the greatest threat to our national well-being. Since 2001 far more Americans have died at the hands of their partners or other family members than in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. American women are twice as likely to suffer domestic violence as breast cancer. . . .

When I give presentations on trauma and trauma treatment, participants sometimes ask me to leave out the politics and confine myself to talking about neuroscience and therapy. I wish I could separate trauma from politics, but as long as we continue to live in denial and treat only trauma while ignoring its origins, we are bound to fail. In today's world your zip code, even more than your genetic code, determines whether you will lead a safe and healthy life. People's income, family structure, housing , employment, and educational opportunities affect not only their risk of developing traumatic stress abut also their access to effective help to address it. . . .

People who feel safe and meaningfully connected with others have little reason to squander their lives doing drugs or staring numbly at television; they don't feel compelled to stuff themselves with carbohydrates or assault their fellow human beings. However, if nothing they do seems to make a difference, they feel trapped and become susceptible to the lure of pills, gang leaders, extremist religions, or violent political movements -- anybody and anything that promises relief. As the ACE study has shown, child abuse and neglect is the single most preventable cause of mental illness, the single most common cause of drug and alcohol abuse, and a significant contributor to leading causes of death such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and suicide.
In the "paths to recovery" section, van der Kolk writes about a successful therapeutic theatre program with high school students in Boston. It reminded me of how much I used to love working with teens in a nontraditional learning environment. And when his team tried to introduce this to the public schools they were met with a "wall of bureaucratic resistance" -- and that is familiar to me, too.

Van der Kolk's voice is warm, compassionate, and engaging. I love how he sees his patients as his greatest teachers. Although he has multiple degrees and designations, and his work is grounded in hard science, he believes he has learned the most through clinical observation.

Although the stories of child abuse and neglect are horrifying, a shining thread of optimism runs through the book. Using many of the creative therapies that van der Kolk writes about, people who have endured the most extreme childhoods have found peace, and learned how to live their lives with love and joy.

Excerpt

Read an excerpt here.

Blurbs

I've never included blurbs in a book review before, but some of the dozens of raves about this book help explain it better than I can.
In this inspirational work which seamlessly weaves keen clinical observation, neuroscience, historical analysis, the arts, and personal narrative, Dr. van der Kolk has created an authoritative guide to the effects of trauma and pathways to recovery. The book is full of wisdom, humanity, compassion, and scientific insight, gleaned from a lifetime of clinical service, research, and scholarship in the field of traumatic stress. A must-read for mental health and other health care professionals, trauma survivors, their loved ones, and those who seek clinical, social or political solutions to the cycle of trauma and violence in our society.

 -- Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and neuroscience; director of the traumatic stress studies division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York
Every once in a while, a book comes along that fundamentally changes the way we look at the world. Bessel van der Kolk has written such a book. The arc of van der Kolk's sory is vast and comprehensive, but he is such a skillful storyteller that he keeps us riveted to the page. I could not put this book down. It is, simply put, a great work.

 -- Stephen Cope, founder and director, Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self
Dr. van der Kolk's masterpiece combines the boundless curiosity of the scientist, the erudition of the scholar, and the passion of the truth teller.

 -- Judith Herman, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, author of Trauma and Recovery
This is a masterpiece of powerful understanding and brave heartedness, one of the most intelligent and helpful works on trauma I have ever read. Dr. van der Kolk offers a brilliant synthesis of clinical case, neuroscience, powerful tools, and caring humanity, offering a whole new level of healing for the traumas carried by so many.

-- Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart
The Body Keeps the Score is masterful in bringing together science and humanism to clearly explain how trauma affects the whole person. Bessel van der Kolk brings deep understanding to the pain and chaos of the trauma experience. The treatment approaches he recommends heal the body and the mind, restoring hope, and the possibility of joy. One reads this book with profound gratitude for its wisdom.
 -- Alicia Lieberman, Ph.D. professor of medical psychology UCSF, director of the Child Trauma Research Project, San Francisco General Hospital; author of the The Emotional Life of the Toddler

Personal insights

I was going to include a section in this post with some personal insights and connections that this book raised for me, but I've decided to write those in a separate post.

"at your library" column in the north island eagle: two columns suddenly without relevance, part 2

This ran after the library was closed... and it's about a resource that can only be accessed in our branches!

Ancestry Library: Your Library Can Help You Discover Your Roots

Many Canadians are interested in learning about their family background. After all, unless you're an Indigenous person, your ancestors were once newcomers to this land. Where did they come from, and what was life like there? Why did they decide to leave their original country, travel to a strange place, often on the other side of the globe? And where did they all go? You probably know some of their stories, but you may have family in Canada or elsewhere that you've never even heard of.

For some people, genealogy becomes an absorbing fascination, even an obsession. Folks travel around the world to see what remains of a family village, or learn a new language so they can read original letters. For others, just a dip into the information now and again is enough – interesting and fun. Whatever your level of interest, the Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) can help you start your journey.

One of our excellent e-resources is Ancestry Library, the library edition of the popular genealogy website. Ancestry Library doesn't have as many features as the regular internet version of Ancestry. But on the other hand, it has great resources for beginners, and it's free. When you're just starting out, free is good!

Ancestry Library is available in all VIRL branches. You can use one of our public computers, or bring your own laptop or tablet if you like.

Ancestry Library has many search tools to get you started, such as census records, records of births, marriages, and deaths, military records, obituaries, and records of immigration. You can also access powerful reference tools, like city directories, almanacs, and atlases.

Ancestry Library will help you learn the basics of genealogy – how to create an ancestral chart (commonly called a family tree), a research calendar, research extract sheets, and correspondence records. These are important tools to help you organize and track your research.

Published biographical and family histories are another avenue of research you can pursue through Ancestry Library. In this category – called "Stories, Memories & Histories" – you might learn about what life was like for your ancestor. You might find descriptions of the region where they lived, local customs, and details about what people ate, or what they grew in their gardens. You might not find an ancestor, but the information you do find can help you understand the era in which your ancestors lived.

Through Ancestry Library, you can also connect to other Canadians who are doing similar research. There are message boards for hundreds of countries and topics.

Here's a tip you'll like: you can save documents like census pages, ship manifests, and marriage certificates, and send them from the website to your personal email address. It's convenient, greener, and saves you the cost of printing.

If this sounds interesting, stop by any VIRL branch, connect to the wifi network, and go to virl.bc.ca > learn > research > genealogy. From there you'll be able to launch Ancestry Library. Happy hunting!

3.26.2020

"at your library" column in the north island eagle: two columns suddenly without relevance, part 1

This ran shortly before the library closed.

Reading to your children is one of the best and most important things you can do to help them succeed in school – and in life. Storytimes – coming to the library so someone else reads to your children – are another important tool to build literacy and reading readiness.

In the small Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) branches here in the North Island, we are fortunate to work with the Mt. Waddington Family Literacy Society, who hire and train people to be "Mother Goose" storytime leaders.

Thanks to the Literacy Society's generosity and commitment to the community, the Port Hardy Library now offers Mother Goose Storytimes twice each week: Tuesday mornings 10:00-10:30, and Wednesday afternoons 3:30-4:00.

In our Port McNeill and Port Alice branches, Mother Goose visits every-other Saturday morning at 11:00.

In our Sointula and Woss branches, Mother Goose is on a break right now, but will be back soon. You can ask at the library when Mother Goose will be there.

The first rule of library storytimes is that they are fun. We don't expect children to sit perfectly still and quiet. They can colour and draw, they can look through a book, they can play with puzzles, or they can even explore the space if they want.

It's not easy for children to sit still. We know that. But they are still benefitting from storytimes, because their brains are soaking up the building blocks of literacy.

Children benefit from a library storytime in so many ways.

Hearing different adult readers read helps strengthen kids' language skills.

Looking at the pictures in books helps kids build literacy, by associating images with words.

Hearing different kinds of books helps kids understand stories. You may have books at home, but I'll bet you don't have as many as we do! Library storytimes introduce your children to different images, writing styles, cultural backgrounds, and perspectives.

Those diverse stories will spark your child's curiosity and imagination. They will help your child understand the world around them.

Attending a storytime at the library helps children develop social skills. It connects children to other caring adults in the community. For parents who are new to the area, storytime is an opportunity to meet other parents.

Storytime lets children experience reading as something fun and special, so it helps motivate children to read on their own.

And, we hope, library storytimes help children develop a love for the library itself. We want them to see their library as a place where they are accepted and allowed to be themselves – a place where they can enjoy themselves.

Even babies need storytimes! Even though they can't speak yet, babies' brains are learning language all the time. You can help that process by speaking, reading, and singing to them – and by bringing them to storytimes at the library.

Storytimes are more than free entertainment. Netflix or a DVD gives you entertainment. Free programs that build early literacy skills are valuable beyond measure.

10 things on my mind about covid-19

1. Wealthy urbanites are fleeing to their second homes -- buying out grocery stores, expecting personal shoppers and home delivery, swelling vacation towns' size to summer proportions. This is the epitome of the egocentric, classist arrogance that often pervades the United States.

2. In India, a planned lockdown of more than a billion people is expected to leave millions dead of starvation. As people become desperate, there will inevitably be rioting, police shootings, and all forms of rampant violence. In this case the response seems far worse than the pandemic itself.

3. Many people seem to have forgotten that the majority of COVID-19 case are not fatal. I'm not minimizing the potential, but numbers of confirmed cases does not equal the same number of deaths.

4. Our experience of the pandemic often depends on our employment situation. For me right now, it's a vacation. Health care workers have so much added risk and all the stress that comes with it. Supermarket workers and delivery people are suddenly on the front lines, in jobs that were never meant to carry such risks.

5. What portion of the government stimulus packages will directly benefit people in need and how much will be corporate bailouts? This is the full extent of a corrupt corporatocracy in action, on both sides of the aisle.

6. I'm concerned about people who can't navigate the information onslaught to figure out how to apply for help. Many of them would normally seek help at the public library -- but the libraries are closed.

7. Many customers at my library can't afford internet or cable TV. They rely on the library as their only source of internet and on borrowing DVDs for entertainment. I think of them often. How are they passing the time?

8. In Canada, the largest retail employers have been giving their workers a $2/hour pay bump -- thanks to the UFCW, with others following their lead. I hope the agreements have made these raises permanent. I can easily imagine cheapskate companies like Loblaws clawing back the increase when the all-clear signal sounds.

9. What happens to all the people whose health is compromised by poverty and who cannot isolate: people who live in refugee camps, homeless shelters, and the vast shantytowns in Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere? I'm sure many in the ruling class hope the pandemic helps these problems disappear, and the rest of us can do little more than shake our heads.

10. I'm afraid that testing and medication is being triaged backwards, to exclude people with disabilities, especially those who require more care. The most needy cases are supposed to be helped first. Triage is not supposed to be a judgement of your worth to society as a worker.

* * * *

11. Bonus track: remember "we like lists"? Those posts drew dozens, sometimes hundreds, of comments. All currently gone. But I haven't given up. A human at Blogger/Google has taken up my case. I'm refusing to think that this will be permanent.

3.23.2020

social distancing is awesome but the world has become surreal

Removed from all context, I am loving social distancing.

I was very disappointed to cancel our planned vacation to visit west-coast family and friends. But other than that, I am having a great time.

Reading.

Writing.

Practicing piano.

Doing jigsaw puzzles.

Watching movies and series.

Walking outside.

Stretching and meditating inside.

Playing with our dogs. They are loving have me around all the time.

Cooking. The Instant Pot is working overtime!

Getting things done around the house.

Poor Allan, because he works from home anyway, he's not getting a vacation, and his alone time has disappeared. But for me, it's a guilt-free staycation.

That's quite a contrast with the outside world. It's horrendous. Illness, death, income loss, ordinary employment becoming dangerous. So much uncertainty, and so much fear.


I can't seem to lose the feeling of surreality. Is this really happening? Where is it going? How bad will it get? I'm not looking for answers. I stay in the moment and watch it unfold.

Perhaps if I read more news, I would lose that feeling? But I see people in my Facebook feed saying that the mountains of bad news are getting them down, and I think, give yourselves a break. There's no Most Informed award. I stay informed to an extent, but my concentration is low and my need to know is easily satisfied. Unlike my partner, who reads a ton and is chronicling it all.

I've never even lost the surreal feeling about the current POTUS! It still feels unbelievable to me. I still mentally shake my head and think, Donald Trump?? Is the president?? How can that be?? (Oh, it be.)

So now the whole world feels surreal to me.

3.22.2020

in which i begin re-learning how to play piano -- using pianote.com

I'm taking piano lessons! I'm really happy and excited about it. I'm using an amazing site called Pianote, which combines traditional lessons with seamless, user-friendly technology.

* * * *

If you're just picking up this story, please read this. (Comments are still missing. Blogger was (finally) working on it... now, who knows.)

Ever since writing that post above, piano lessons has been on my to-do list. Now social distancing has given me the perfect opportunity to get started.

But how to begin? Simple sheet music wouldn't be enough. I knew I would need actual lessons to guide me through the process. And I wanted an app or online course so I wouldn't have to schedule anything or, to be honest, deal with another human.

When I started surveying piano-learning apps, I discovered a deluge of options, and most of them looked awful. Many are geared to children. These are mostly "gamified" (yuck) and involve teaching basic songs by rote (double yuck). I definitely want to re-learn how to read music, learn basic theory, and so on.

There are many sites reviewing learn-to-play-piano apps and websites, and through one of those, I found Pianote. I instantly recognized it as what I was looking for.



Pianote is built around video instruction, taught by piano teachers using step-by-step, progressive lessons -- first, the basics, then branching out into different areas of interest.

The site is really well-designed. It's full of interesting bells and whistles, including downloadable sheet music, member forums, live lessons, practice plans, and personalized help. There's even the option to send a video of your play for critique, or to get advice on a specific area of difficulty. Pretty amazing.

The teachers are very engaging and really know how to teach. I'm working through the Foundations course, then at some point I'll be ready to choose a song to work on. There are hundreds to choose from. Then I'll continue working on theory while also practicing a song.

I made immediate progress, and it felt great. Although I am starting from the very beginning -- re-learning how to play a C scale -- the memory of basic playing must be in my brain somewhere, and I can feel it coming to life.

I'm going to try to play every day. I never do anything every day. I don't write every day, don't cook every day -- I don't even read every day! But I'm going to try to spend 30 minutes every day at the piano.

farmers concerned about harvest labour: improve working conditions, hire locally

I've read that the recent border closures, part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, have raised concerns in the agricultural sector. Farmers are worried that there will be a shortage of the seasonal workers they employ -- and depend on -- at harvest time. Farmers normally apply for workers through Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

There are many problems with the TFW system, including a lack of oversight that opens the door for all kinds of abuses. But leaving that aside, right now a great many Canadians suddenly find themselves unemployed, as their employers have shut down or are severely limiting services during the public health crisis.

This leads me to an inescapable question. Couldn't local workers pick crops?

They would need protective equipment, of course. And their hiring and any training would have to conform to health protocols. But so would hiring temporary foreign workers. Surely Canada is not going to bring in busloads of migrant workers from South and Central America without testing and quarantine?

The TFW Program is supposed to be a way for employers to fill positions when no Canadians are available for hire. Have farmers reached out to Canadian municipalities to (try to) recruit Canadians to pick their produce? I've seen no mention of this anywhere.

If the answer to the question, "Why not hire locally?" is "Where would we find people? How would we transport them?" and similar logistical issues, those can be sorted out with creativity and flexibility.

But if the answer to that question is "Because working conditions are so bad, no Canadian would want the job," then we have an ideal opportunity. Improve working conditions, make picking crops a decent job, and hire locally. Or at least try to hire locally first.

Access to nutritious, local fruits and vegetables is a basic element of our health and well-being. The act of picking crops lies at the very foundation of our ability to feed ourselves and stay healthy. Therefore, picking crops is a very important job.

Picking crops is difficult, grueling, back-breaking work -- work that must be done both efficiently and quickly. Therefore, the people who do it deserve to be decently compensated.

Picking crops must be done by humans. There is no digital or mechanical substitute. And all humans deserve decent working conditions.

That's what we believe in Canada, right?

Make picking crops a decent job and you just might find Canadians applying. That will decrease the chances of bringing coronavirus across the border, alleviate the need to test and quarantine temporary workers -- and it will right a longstanding injustice at the same time.

If you're unfamiliar with the issues faced by migrant farm workers, I highly recommend the movies, "Harvest of Shame" (1960), "Immokalee USA" (2009) and "Food Inc." (2008). A list of movies on the topic is here, compiled by Student Action with Farmworkers.

You might also visit the website of the United Farm Workers, one of the great movements of our time.*

And of course, there is the great American novel, and my most cherished book of all time, The Grapes of Wrath. If you haven't read it, or read it long ago, you might use some of your social distancing time to check it out. It's as relevant today as it ever was, and it's available for free download in either pdf or audiobook form.

* I have a soft spot for the UFW. They are one year younger than me, and their organizing and issues are part of my earliest political consciousness. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta are two of my great heroes.

3.21.2020

how to afford a real social safety net: tax corporations, tax the rich, reduce u.s. military spending

As waves of shelter-in-place orders sweep over the continent, Canada and the US must figure out how to support an entire population thrown into unemployment and in need of food, fuel, shelter, and in the US, health care. A brief dip into recent history provides two very simple answers.

Demand corporations pay their share.

The corporate tax rate is at an all-time low (for modern times), offshore tax havens are rampant, and as if that's not enough, in the US the largest corporations are now receiving tax rebates to the tune of $79 billion.
Nearly 100 Fortune 500 companies effectively paid no federal taxes in 2018, according to a new report.

The study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank, covers the first year following passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act championed by President Donald Trump, which was signed into law in December 2017.

The report covers 379 companies from the Fortune list that were profitable in 2018 and finds that 91 paid an effective federal tax rate of 0% or less. Those companies come from a wide range of industries and include the likes of Amazon, Starbucks and Chevron.

The new tax law lowered the statutory corporate tax rate to 21%, but the companies in the report paid an average rate of 11.3%. Fifty-seven companies paid effective rates above 21%. The report was first covered by The Washington Post.

The lower average rate means that the federal government brought in about $74 billion less in corporate taxes than if all the companies had paid the statutory rate, according to the report.
Canada is no different.

In 2013, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper cut the corporate tax rate from 22.1% to 15%.

In 2018, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau further reduced it, to 13.8%, the lowest among G7 countries.

Yet most profitable corporations don't even pay that much. Through a series of loopholes and mind-numbingly complex financial instruments understood only by corporate lawyers, corporations reduce their tax burden further -- often to zero, or even lower.

The accepted wisdom about corporate taxes -- that lowering them is an economic stimulus and raising them will cause businesses to leave the country -- has been proven false, again and again.

The current health crisis should put an end to any debate.

We need corporations to pay taxes, and we need the super-rich to pay their fair share, in order to keep our populace afloat. With hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people finding themselves suddenly unemployed, with no way to keep a roof over their heads, buy basic necessities, stay warm, and access health care, the needs of sociey as a whole must take precedence over the private stockpiling of wealth.

Think of this: in 2018, you and I paid more taxes than Amazon, the richest corporation on the planet. In fact, Amazon, which posted 72.4 billion revenue, enjoyed a tax rebate to the tune of $129 million. Tax refunds also went to Delta Airlines, General Motors, Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals, Occidental Petroleum, and our old wartime buddies, Halliburton, to name just a few. For most Fortune 500 companies, the actual tax rate is -5%. That's negative five percent. So they pay zero taxes, and receive a tidy kickback.

This is not new. In the US, since 1968 corporate taxes have been steadily lowered by every administration, Democrat or Republican. The picture has only gotten worse as powerful corporations have ever-increasing influence on government.

This doesn't even take into account personal wealth. In 2018, US billionaires were given a lower effective tax rate than ordinary working people.

Now is the time for this dangerous trend to be reversed. Giant, wildly profitable corporations must not be allowed to suck resources out of our society and give nothing in return.

Reduce military contracts

The current US military budget is said to be $745 billion. But that doesn't include a whole raft of spending, in which public money is handed over to private-sector corporations such as KBR, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing, Unisys, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft. (It's a very long list.)

The true cost of the US military budget is closer to $1 trillion. That is: 1,000,000,000,000.

No need to cut the salaries of officers and soldiers. No need to cut VA benefits or pensions. Just cancel a few slush-fund contracts. Those companies could continue to pay their lower-level employees until their retirement, purely from their profits.

* * * *

Tragically, cutting the military budget is a fantasy. The US will continue to waste more than 50% of its budget on its bloated military. But is reining in the worst excesses of the current tax system such an impossibility?

As much as Canadians love to blame everything on Trump, this has nothing to do with who lives in the White House -- or on Sussex Drive. Tory or Liberal, Democrat or Republican, the trend has not changed.

Stop asking "How are we going to pay for this?" Make everyone pay their fair share.

3.18.2020

coronavirus exposes, part 2: there is a bright side, and it's socialism in action

A reader pointed out that my previous post is very negative, and doesn't mention any of the very positive responses to the pandemic that are being rolled out.

So:

A prohibition on evictions.

Water and electricity not being cut off for nonpayment.

Student loan forgiveness.

A relaxation of rules for employment insurance, and emergency funds for those who don't qualify.

In some cities, free public transit.

Paid sick leave. A suspension of rules about needing doctors' notes for sick days.

And

Every single one of these decent, humane responses to this health crisis injects a piece of socialism into our world.

When the crisis has passed, governments will have to work overtime to erase our memories and return to ruthless business as usual.

coronavirus exposes the darkest sides of unchecked capitalism and the gaping holes in our society

We're all struggling to take in the magnitude of coping with a global pandemic. Personally I've had to cancel a long-awaited vacation to vist family, and with libraries closed, I may soon be applying for EI. The shelves at our local supermarket are empty; we're hoping folks who did the right thing, remained calm and didn't hoard, won't be repaid with severe shortages.

And of course I'm hoping that the relatively fast and decisive actions taken by Canada and my own province of BC will protect us from the worst.

But I'm also acutely aware that my personal inconvenience is nothing compared to the misfortunes of so many others. I don't mean those who are necessarily sick with COVID-19. I'm thinking of those who simply cannot prepare, and those who are suddenly faced with a total loss of income.

All the families who live paycheque to paycheque, cobbling together an income from various part-time and casual jobs, who suddenly find themselves unemployed.

All the workers who don't qualify for assistance because they freelance, work off the books, don't work enough hours, or are otherwise under the radar.

People for whom the direction to "stay at home" is just cruel, because they live in over-crowded shelters or on the streets.

Custodial and janitorial workers who are cleaning the office buildings we've all abandoned, often with inadequate information or equipment.

People who can't afford private internet, and are now completely disconnected.

All the people in the US without proper healthcare.

All the people dealing with serious mental health and addiction issues on their own, or barely managed through the grossly under-funded system.

This public health crisis has exposed the raw edge of capitalism and unchecked greed. If corporations paid their fair share, if our taxes were used for the public good instead of corporate welfare and tax breaks for the wealthy, if in the past 40 years CEOs salaries hadn't outstripped worker gains by an order of magnitude, we'd be in a better position to weather this storm -- all of us, including our most vulnerable members.

The housing crisis is not a force of nature. Long-term care homes don't have to be understaffed. Public school classes don't have to be so large, their facilities crumbling. These conditions are a result of government priorities, and of the undue influence of industry and corporations in our public institutions.

Looking at the long-term picture, we can easily see that it doesn't matter which of the ruling class parties are in power. Tory or Liberal, Democrat or Republican, the inexorable march of unchecked capitalism continues. Until we construct a new paradigm to manage governments and resources, it will only get worse.

Coronavirus should be teaching us a lesson about socialism. But once the storm has passed, no such lesson will have been learned.