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.

3.13.2020

in which covid-19 accomplishes what revolution, unexplained plane crashes, and terrorism could not

I've never cancelled a trip because of external circumstances. Until now.

In 1994, we were heading to Mexico -- to travel through the country, not to stay in a resort -- when revolution broke out in the state of Chiapas. We went anyway.

In 2001, we were booked on a flight to Ireland, two months after September 11, and less than 24 hours after a plane crashed immediately after takeoff from the same NYC airport. We went anyway.

In 2017, we were finally going to Egypt, when a bomb went off in a Cairo church. We went anyway.

In about a month from now, we were to take a road trip with our dogs, to visit family and friends in Oregon and California. We've cancelled.

Travel in the US seems ill-advised right now, even more so because we would be seeing my 88-year-old mother who already has respiratory issues. What if were exposed to the coronavirus and then infected her?

It was a simple decision, yet such a painful one. I am so disappointed! I haven't seen my west-coast nieces and nephews and their partners, and my grand-niece, in several years. This trip also included my dear friend who lives in L.A., who I haven't seen in 10 years, and her wife, who I have not yet met. It also included a Red Sox game -- which of course has been cancelled anyway.

We've decided to travel only to see family and friends, at least for a few years. (It is killing me to see these old posts with the comments missing!) So there's the travel aspect of this too. I'm missing this trip on many levels.

And yeah, when it comes to a global pandemic, my travel plans are the quintessential #LeastImportantThing. But when it comes to my own life, this is a huge disappointment.

Where this is going, especially what it will look like in the US, where millions of people cannot afford health care, is frightening to contemplate.

In Canada, we are intent on flattening that curve. And while we all have basic health care here -- no small difference -- we do not all have paid sick leave. The pandemic is the stark illustration of why mandates that protect workers protect everyone.

3.05.2020

"at your library" in the north island eagle: let your reading take you someplace new – part 2

Is your reading stuck in a rut? Do you read the same authors all the time? Do you ever search for something new (to you) and different to read?

I’m suggesting a little reading challenge for readers of this column: this year, read three books that take you out of your comfort zone.

In my last column, I was singing the praises of graphic novels – books for adults that look like comic books. Graphic novels bring a whole other dimension to reading by using images to convey plot and emotions.

Another type of reading that I frequently recommend is narrative nonfiction. Many people read nonfiction books without even realizing. Three of the most popular kinds of nonfiction are cookbooks, self-help, and how-to.

In your library, you’ll find how-to books about gardening, knitting, carpentry, drawing, engine repair, jewelry-making – you name it. Self-help comes in many flavours, from how to combat stress to how to get your children to go to bed, and just about every human issue you can think of.

These books can improve our lives in countless ways. But narrative nonfiction gives us more than information. It tells a story – a true story, using a huge amount of historical research, but told in a story form, with all the suspense and plot and character development that are used in fiction. In short, you’re reading facts but it feels like you’re reading fiction.

Here are some excellent and very popular nonfiction titles.

Dead Wake by Erik Larsen – You may already know the story of The Lusitania, but I guarantee you’ve never imagined it like this. The author takes you inside the luxury cruise ship – and the German submarine. It’s exciting and suspenseful, and it will give you a taste for what narrative nonfiction can do.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed – A woman with no experience or training embarks on a journey for which many people prepare for months or years. What happens to her on the trail, how she survives and what she learns, is riveting.

Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer – What happened to Chris McCandless, who gave up his trust fund to live in the Alaskan wilderness? If you enjoy this book, the author has written many other gripping tales of nonfiction.

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen – Memoirs written by creative and interesting people can make great reading. This book will amaze and surprise you. If you enjoy it, you might want to read memoirs by Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Elton John, Johnny Cash, Keith Richards, Tony Bennett, or Willie Nelson – there are dozens to choose from.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean – Yes, your librarian is recommending a book about libraries. Actually, Orlean’s book is about the huge fire that devastated Los Angeles’ Central Library in 1986. It’s also about arson, and the history of Los Angeles, and a whole bunch of other things. It’s fascinating. If you read it, you won’t be sorry.

If you’d like other reading suggestions for graphic novels, narrative nonfiction, or any other genre, ask at your library branch, or drop me an email. Readers’ advisory – that’s librarian-speak for what I’m doing here – is one of my favourite parts of my job.

3.01.2020

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #31

One of the most frustrating and sad things we encounter at the library are people we can't help, who don't understand why we can't help them -- and who blame us. These are generally people with minimal or no digital literacy (i.e. tech skills).

Here's a typical scenario. A customer cannot access their email account because they have forgotten their password. It's likely they changed the password at some point but don't remember doing that, so they're using the old password, or that they're typing it in wrong. They claim they know their password, but it's not working. The password reset function requires a verification text sent to the phone number on file -- but that phone no longer exists.

There are several ways this plays out.

The customer blames the library computers, claiming that this never happened when they used the computers at [place where they used public computers in the past].

The customer blames library staff for being unwilling to help them.

The customer blames library staff for not having basic computer skills.

The customer insists that library staff is able to retrieve their password but refuses to do so.

And any combination of the above.

Typically the customer is very frustrated and upset. If they happen to speak to library staff who are less adept at handling difficult situations, it can get really ugly.

It helps if there is more than one staff member present. People tend to respond more positively to the second person who confirms what the first person has said -- the old "I'll check with my supervisor" technique.

Explanations must be very clear and concise. But a person who is in a stressed and anxious state often cannot absorb even the clearest information.

And no matter how skilled the library staff, and how perfect their explanation, the result is the same: we can't retrieve their password.

* * * *

We live in a world where basics skills with a device, be it a phone or computer, are needed for daily life. But where and how do you acquire those skills, if you're not in school, don't own a device, and don't work at a job where computer use is the norm? For people who are experiencing homelessness or other social dislocation, it can be a nightmare.

I hope you have all seen the film "I, Daniel Blake". (If you have not, you must!) There's a scene where Daniel uses a computer in a busy public library. He has never used a computer. He doesn't know how to use the mouse, or how to type something into a search engine.

Daniel is an intelligent and knowledgeable person, but in this situation, he is almost helpless. And Daniel needs the computer in order to access benefits, in a system purposely designed to weed out as many people as possible. (Good piece on "I, Daniel Blake" and literacy here.)

And we also live in a world where countless daily interactions are dependent on giant, faceless mega-corporations. Interactions with the corporations that hold and control our data moves only in one direction. The customer asks, Can't you call Hotmail and get my password from them?

Perhaps to us, that's a ridiculous question. Who uses Hotmail anymore? And call Hotmail? But it's actually a perfectly reasonable question. It's the answer that's unreasonable.