another federal election, another opportunity squandered #elxn44 #ndp

I haven't written anything about the upcoming Canadian federal election, because what is there to say? The results are depressingly predictable.

We will either have a Liberal government or a Conservative government. 

Both will suck. One will suck worse, and one will appear to suck less. 

In a predictable bit of circular reasoning, a large number of Canadians will not vote for a party whose values they claim to support, because that party is not "electable". Despite imagining themselves as politically savvy, they will choose not to strengthen the party whose platform they support, not to build that party for the future. They will believe they are making a smart choice by not voting for what they want. Instead, they will chose to continue down a worn path that prevents Canada from moving forward.

If the Conservatives win the election, supposedly progressive people who don't vote NDP will blame progressive people who do vote NDP, sneeringly calling us as conscience voters, as if acting on one's conscience is something to be avoided. 

If the Liberals win the election, supposedly progressive people will breathe a sigh of relief, believing rhetoric and appearance over substance and voting record.

People who don't identify as progressive, but who would substantially benefit from an NDP government -- that is, the majority of Canadians -- will not vote NDP, because of mistaken, ill-informed beliefs. These beliefs are supported by the Canadian media, doggedly asking the question that is reserved solely for the NDP: How are you going to pay for that? The question no one ever asks about a military budget. About corporate welfare. About privatization. A question that used to be asked about public healthcare.

There's a reason that, come election time, the Liberals sound like the NDP. In 2021, why not vote for the party that truly supports what the Liberals claim to support?

Only one party supports a national pharmacare program. 

Only one party wants to expand public healthcare to include dental care.

Only one party wants to re-invest in our depleted public sector.

Only one party supports workers.

Only one party truly engages in Reconciliation.

Only one party has a leader willing to call out Canada's institutionalized racism.

Only one party has a plan to address income equality.

Only one party wants to invest in affordable post-secondary education.

I could go on and on. 

But it doesn't matter, does it? 

Until Canadians are willing to do something besides this

nothing will change. 

But that's not really true. There's never a time when nothing changes; change is the only constant. So what changes will we see?

The public sector will continue to shrink.

Income inequality will worsen.

Climate change will worsen.

Housing will become even less affordable.

An increasingly large segment of Canadians will be unable to afford post-secondary education -- and indeed, unable to afford daily life.

I want change. I want a government that wants the same things I want. That's why I vote NDP.


from the archives: all over the world, i tell people where to go

On our recent trip to Oregon and California, I made a note every time someone asked me for directions. 

That may seem like an odd thing to track -- unless you're well-established as a magnet for The Lost. Not the spiritually lost. The physically lost and uncertain.

On this trip, we remembered three times: near the dog park in Berkeley, on a street corner in San Francisco, in a parking lot in Portland. It's possible there were others we didn't note and forgot. We shared a laugh: it still happens.

It is not lost on me that for my second (or third?) career, I chose a profession where I help people find information. I'm pretty sure I used this, in much shortened form, on my graduate school application essay. (Little did I know I could have written gibberish and been accepted. Are you a live body who will pay tuition? You're in!)

Being asked for directions during my first trip to Portland reminded me of an essay I once wrote -- really just a piece of an essay that I tinkered with now and again, back in pre-internet days when we wrote things and sent them to people who might publish them. I'll use this occasion to publish it myself.

Hello, my name is Laura and I give directions.  

I don't wear a button, but I might as well. Everywhere I go, people ask me for directions.  

It is a rare subway trip in my own city that I am not approached. "Does this train go to Grand Central?" "How do I get to Columbus Circle?" It happens just as frequently when I travel. I had been in San Francisco less than an hour when I car pulled up beside me, passenger window rolled down, inquiring face at the window.  In Italy and France, natives and tourists alike asked me the way. On a deserted highway in rural Mississippi, in a tiny village in upstate New York, in the middle of rush hour in Chicago. They pick me out of crowds, cross the street, flag me down. They want directions, and they want them from me.

When I talk about this phenomenon, people think I'm exaggerating. That is, until they spend time with me. An old friend and I were doing errands on the Upper West Side when a woman stopped me: "Is there a crosstown bus on this street?" My friend said, "I see you're still in demand."

I've given much thought to why this is. I suppose, as a short woman, I don't appear threatening or intimidating. Perhaps as an alert city-dweller, I look alert and confident. The very first time I can remember being asked for directions may provide a clue. I was in college -- on the first day of classes, freshman year. I was nervously rushing to class, wondering where on earth I was going and what on earth I was doing, when a young woman tapped my arm: "How do you get to College Hall?" I burst out laughing. "I have no idea!  I'm a freshman!" "Wow!" she said, impressed. "You really look like you know where you're going." Together, we held her map and tried to determine where we were. But it made my day. No, it made my month. Hey, I look like I know where I'm going.

It's a responsibility I take very seriously. If I don't have the requested information, I feel like I've let someone down. (Even worse is the occasional realization that I've given someone wrong directions.) I wait while people search for pens. If the person is interested, I'll give several alternatives. I tailor my directions to their needs: Can they walk a long distance? Are they in a rush? Would they rather save the price of a token, and see the city on foot? More than once, I've told tourists that we were headed in the same direction, and took them myself.

Yes, I have walked around New York City with strangers. And, obviously, I talk to strangers all the time. Aren't I afraid? The answer is no -- and that's probably the biggest reason I am asked for directions so frequently. Contrary to what many people believe, for an adult with common sense, talking to strangers is not a high-risk business. Quickly, expertly and mostly unconsciously, I size up the inquirer, using the cues that we all use every moment of our public lives. How close are they standing? Do they appear to be headed somewhere? Where's my bag, my wallet? 99% of the askers are lost, or at least unsure of the way. When I encounter that 1%, I move away, just like anyone else.

That last paragraph now seems silly and unnecessary. But leaving aside my urge to edit, re-reading this reminded me of two episodes that didn't make it into this draft.

Near Rockefeller Center, a Japanese man stopped me. I had a very hard time understanding his English; his guidebook was in Japanese. I did get that he was looking for a bookstore, possibly a Japanese bookstore? I tried several times to work out what he meant, but finally had to say I didn't know. More than a year later, I saw an article about a famous Japanese-language bookstore in the area (and have since discovered it's part of a chain). I was so annoyed at myself for not being able to help this man! I hope he found the store.

A more amusing episode took place on the subway platform at Columbus Circle. I was on my way to my weekend word-processing job, and a family of four approached me. They were decked out head-to-toe in brand-spanking-new Yankees gear -- hats, t-shirts, water bottles, the works. The dad asked me when the next train to Yankees Stadium would arrive. 

I told him there was no way to know when it would arrive, but if they were going to the Stadium, they were on the wrong platform. "This is the downtown platform. You need to go up the stairs, over to the uptown side," I said, gesturing through the path they should follow. "Then take the D train. It should say 'Uptown and the Bronx'."

To my astonishment, the man replied, "No, this is the train we need. I just want to know what time it is due."

So many things wrong with this sentence! Where to begin!

I wasn't a librarian yet, so I wouldn't have called him sir. But I was polite, far more polite than many New Yorkers would have been. "Hey, I live here, and I go to Yankee games all the time. I promise you, you're on the wrong platform. You need to go over there, to the uptown side. Also, there is no train schedule, especially on the weekend. They come when they come. Also, the game isn't until 1:00. You won't be able to get in the Stadium, and the area will be deserted."

Maybe he couldn't appear to be wrong in front of his kids. Maybe... who knows! But he insisted. And he yelled at me! Seriously, the man yelled: "This is the train to the Yankees! Do you know the schedule??" 

At that point I could only scoff in his face. "Suit yourself." I shrugged my shoulders. "Have a nice day."

My train arrived, and I left. Later I shared a good laugh with a friend who I went to games with. I wonder what happened to that family that day. 

The moral of the story: when a New Yorker gives you directions, don't argue.


labour day 2021: workers want to work less and live more

Lying Flat
We're told there is a labour shortage. Businesses can't find workers. No one wants to work.

Why the shortage exists and what should be done about it are the subjects of much debate, and no small amount of disinformation.

Within this shortage, there are two different streams: one a shortage of workers wanted to perform part-time, low-wage, repetitive jobs, and the other, unfilled positions that come with higher earnings and benefits packages. 

These are different issues, with different causes and consequences -- but they share a root cause: the capitalist work ethic.

Work vs benefits: a baseless claim

There is an idea out there that young people -- so-called millennials -- don't want to work. 

We are told millennials are lazy divas who think work is beneath them. They are immature and irresponsible, so they can't find and keep a job. (This myth also provides an opportunity to blame everyone's favourite scapegoat: mothers.) And of course, the favourite hobbyhorse of the right wing: government aid. People are supposedly living the good life collecting covid benefits. Why work when you can live it up on the gravy train?

No evidence is given for this claim. It never is among people who despise governments that help people, rather than those that strictly to corporate welfare. But in fact, the evidence suggests much the opposite. Economist Paul Krugman asks: 

But have unemployment benefits actually had a major adverse effect on employment? No. State-level job numbers released Friday reinforced the conclusions of earlier studies that found at most a small negative effect.

This time, Republicans inadvertently provided the data needed to refute their own claims. Many red states rushed to cancel enhanced unemployment benefits earlier than their scheduled September expiration. If these benefits were a major force holding back job creation, these states should have seen noticeably faster employment growth than blue states that kept benefits in place. They didn’t.

In reality, much evidence shows that Americans have struggled to access assistance during the pandemic. From The Guardian

Workers across America faced long delays in receiving unemployment benefits as state systems were quickly overwhelmed with the mass influx of applications that caused months-long backlogs. Meanwhile, workers who made errors on their applications, had missing records or had their claims flagged had their benefits stopped – and often had difficulty restarting them once problems were resolved.

About 9 million Americans are estimated to have lost work due to the pandemic but received no unemployment benefits.

Sharon Corpening, 60, a freelance writer in Roswell, Georgia, lost all her work contracts when the pandemic shutdowns occurred throughout the US in March last year.

As a gig worker, Corpening’s initial unemployment application was denied by the Georgia department of labor, until the Cares Act provided pandemic unemployment assistance for gig workers a few weeks later. She spent weeks trying to process her application and encountered issues with the unemployment website, and would sit on the phone for hours daily failing to reach a service representative.

Like thousands of Americans having trouble with their unemployment applications, Corpening joined a Facebook group and got involved in helping others through the unemployment process, advocating for systemic reforms and countering narratives that try to portray unemployed workers as “lazy” and “not wanting to work”.

. . . The impacts were detrimental to workers around the US, who fell behind on rent or mortgage or car payments, experienced utility shutoffs and relied on food banks and assistance programs to feed themselves and their families.

The story above mentions a family that was forced to put their special-needs child in a group home -- putting her health in jeopardy -- because they could no longer afford to care for her at home. It mentions a single mother who lost both her jobs through covid but was unable to access benefits from the state of Florida -- a system that Governor Ron DeSantis admitted was purposely designed to be difficult to access. There must be hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of stories like these all over North America.

Low-wage work sucks... but if it paid better, it would suck a lot less

I'm willing to concede that some low-wage earners might live better on government assistance than on their crappy jobs. If that's true, the problem is not the benefits. It's the jobs.

I can't possibly say this any better than "Canadian writer Lori Fox in her recent essay in the Globe and Mail: I’m one of the service workers who left the restaurant industry during the pandemic. Serve yourself". Fox's essay is well worth reading in its entirety, but here's a teaser.

I was a server for 15 years. When the pandemic struck a year-and-a-half ago, I was one of millions of food service workers – cooks, bussers, hosts and servers – who were furloughed as the world shut down. I’m also among those who chose not to return to the industry when things began to open back up. I’m one of your missing service workers.

Let me shed some light on the “mystery” of this labour shortage: With an abysmally low rate of pay, bad (often erratic) hours, no sick days and near-constant sexual harassment, racism, sexism and queerphobia, working in service sucks.

And yet that hasn’t stopped pundits, and even some restaurateurs, from decrying our lack of good ol’ fashioned work ethic and blaming the government dole for keeping us from returning to our rightful place: tableside, making them money and waiting on our betters.

What has been said about us – that CERB has kept us from re-entering the work force, that we are lazy and unambitious, that we simply don’t want to work – is ridiculous.

It’s also indicative of the way much of society thinks about working-class bodies: as expendable, interchangeable, replaceable parts of a capitalist machine over which it has ownership. Some people not only feel entitled to our labour, but to pay as little for it as possible.

Let’s be clear, then. It’s not that we don’t want to work – it’s just that we don’t want to work a physically demanding job in substandard conditions without benefits for minimum wage. And we especially don’t want to do that during the rising fourth wave of a pandemic. A study published earlier this year found the risk of death during the pandemic increased 40 per cent for food and agricultural workers in California.

Some of your “missing” workers are not missing. They’re dead.

And Fox is writing in a Canadian context, where the average minimum wage is one-third higher -- and in some cases, double -- that in most US states. And Canadian workers have their health care covered. 

Is it any wonder that workers don't want dead-end, repetitive, poorly-paid jobs, where they are treated like crap, their wages stolen regularly, with no benefits and with no possibility of advancement?

Who would want these jobs? Would you?

Being married to your career also sucks, but in different ways

The other labour shortage involves thousands of vacant positions for people with formal education and work experience. 

Our society abounds with fields where professionals -- never called workers, but if you work for a living, you are a worker! -- are expected to put in horrendously long hours, never or rarely take time off, and often when they do, to be on-call. Lawyers, doctors, and all manner of professionals are expected to "pay their dues" by prioritizing their careers over all else. For many, that's a "choice" never ends.

Then there are the workers who are expected to subsidize their employers with unpaid labour -- educators expected to grade papers at home, social workers whose caseloads are a physical impossibility, health practitioners rushed off their feet and worn out, all day, every day. 

All manner of support staff and public servants fall into this category because of chronic understaffing. Staffing needs are constantly sacrificed to the bottom line, whether that is controlled by profit or by the constant pressure to maintain ever-shrinking budgets in an austerity economic climate. 

In so many fields, workers are expected to sacrifice their personal lives, their family lives, and their mental health, because work is always expected to come first.

Lying flat

Writer Cassady Rosenblum was a producer of a major NPR show; she quit her job, left the city of Boston, and now lives with her parents in rural West Virginia. Obviously, a move like that requires a great deal of privilege. But if we care about the needs of all workers -- indeed, of all people -- that includes people who are well-paid, but over-stressed. 

Rosenblum writes:

As of June, there were more than 10 million job openings in the United States, according to the most recent figures from the Labor Department — the highest number since the government began tracking the data two decades ago. While conservatives blame juiced-up pandemic unemployment benefits, liberals counter that people do want to work, just not for the paltry wages they were making before the pandemic.

Both might be true. But if low wages were all that’s at play, we would expect to see reluctant workers at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and content workers at the top. Instead, there are murmurs of dissent at every rung, including from the inner sanctums of Goldman Sachs, where salaries for investment bankers start at $150,000. According to a leaked internal survey, entry-level analysts at the investment bank report they’re facing “inhumane” conditions, working an average of 98 hours a week, forgoing showers and sleep. “I’ve been through foster care,” said one respondent. “This is arguably worse.”

In China, young people choosing to work less and live simply has taken the form of a movement: tangping: Lying Flat.

A generation ago, the route to success in China was to work hard, get married and have children. The country’s authoritarianism was seen as a fair trade-off as millions were lifted out of poverty. But with employees working longer hours and housing prices rising faster than incomes, many young Chinese fear they will be the first generation not to do better than their parents.

They are now defying the country’s long-held prosperity narrative by refusing to participate in it.

Mr. Luo’s blog post was removed by censors, who saw it as an affront to Beijing’s economic ambitions. Mentions of “lying flat” — tangping, as it’s known in Mandarin — are heavily restricted on the Chinese internet. An official counternarrative has also emerged, encouraging young people to work hard for the sake of the country’s future.

“After working for so long, I just felt numb, like a machine,” Mr. Luo said in an interview. “And so I resigned.”

To lie flat means to forgo marriage, not have children, stay unemployed and eschew material wants such as a house or a car. It is the opposite of what China’s leaders have asked of their people.

It's what the ruling class has asked of us for centuries. 

Meaningful work can be a great source of satisfaction and fulfilment. But those of us lucky enough to derive challenge, joy, and fulfilment through paid employment know that even the best work can destroy our lives. The human-resources buzzword "work-life balance" makes it very plain: work is not life. Work is a part of our lives but isn't all of our lives.

And for most workers, work is something that, if we're lucky, pays the bills. 

It's time for a four-day workweek

It's no wonder the movement for a four-day workweek is popping up all over the internet -- not just among us lazy socialists but in the business media.

Think of how much more balanced our lives would be with four days of work and three days for ourselves and our families. Think of how much more productive we'd be if we weren't running down the clock every Friday.

Once upon a time, there was no workweek. There was only work. Workers who wanted to spend their sabbath day resting were told "If you don't come in on Sunday, don't come in on Monday" -- meaning if they took a day off, they would be fired. We owe the five-day week -- a once-radical idea that is now enshrined in labour codes the world over -- to labour activism.

It's time to take it one step further.

We toil in a world that does not support us

There are other reasons for the labour shortage: neither American nor Canadian society offers the supports needed to make working possible.

Child care, a basic need of millions of workers, is either nonexistent or unaffordable. 

Public transit is a disgrace, and many workers cannot afford the costs of auto insurance and maintenance. They spend hours transferring from one overcrowded bus to another. Others who can afford cars spend those hours locked in traffic.

Millions of women still face "double duty" -- working full-time plus bearing all family responsibilities. Although this has changed in past decades, it should have gone the way of the rotary phone. But it is still far too common.

And if it weren't for the ridiculously high cost of housing -- the strange fact that the most basic human need is subject to the for-profit system -- I have no doubt that the labour shortage would be exponentially worse. 

Capitalism, internalized

If the idea of a four-day workweek seems foreign and radical, you are experiencing a symptom of a different pandemic: internalized capitalism. Much as we absorb stereotyped gender norms, we have been absorbing capitalist values throughout our lives.

I've been seeing and enjoying this meme in many places.

[By "feeling lazy," we can assume @therapywithlee means believing we are lazy when we need time off from work -- not "feeling lazy" in a pleasant and cozy sense.]

Labour shortage or learning curve?

Ten minutes into the global pandemic, all the cracks in the capitalist system were exposed. The cracks turned into an earthquake. Now we're surveying the wreckage.

The global pandemic has taught us many lessons. Taken together, the lessons have led to one big conclusion: the system doesn't work.  

What will be done with this knowledge is unknown. And it won't happen by accident. 

The ruling class will line up in force to resurrect and maintain the old order. Workers -- working people, all of us -- could prevent that, but only if we are organized and intentional.

Will we use our covid learning to build a better future? One that values our physical and mental well-being over productivity?

It's Labour Day. Demand More.


the only lesson to be learned from afghanistan: war is a waste

Veterans for Peace protest, 2016
As the US finally ends its occupation of Afghanistan, watching the media obsess on the specifics of the pullout has brought me no end of head-shaking. The violent chaos of the exit makes for sensational images and startling headlines, always good for the business of media. But it's also a shell game, designed to narrow our attention and ask the wrong questions.

Twenty years of occupation and the pullout is the problem? This brings to mind Donald Rumsfeld's response to revelations of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison: banning cameras.

Ezra Klein had a similar thought.

In 2005, two of my colleagues at The American Prospect, Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias, wrote an essay I think about often. It was called "The Incompetence Dodge," and it argued that American policymakers and pundits routinely try to rescue the reputation of bad ideas by attributing their failure to poor execution. At the time, they were writing about the liberal hawks who were blaming the catastrophe of the Iraq war on the Bush administration’s maladministration rather than rethinking the enterprise in its totality. But the same dynamic suffuses the recriminations over the Afghanistan withdrawal.

To state the obvious: There was no good way to lose Afghanistan to the Taliban. A better withdrawal was possible — and our stingy, chaotic visa process was unforgivable — but so was a worse one. Either way, there was no hope of an end to the war that didn't reveal our decades of folly, no matter how deeply America's belief in its own enduring innocence demanded one. That is the reckoning that lies beneath events that are still unfolding, and much of the cable news conversation is a frenzied, bipartisan effort to avoid it.

Focusing on the execution of the withdrawal is giving virtually everyone who insisted we could remake Afghanistan the opportunity to obscure their failures by pretending to believe in the possibility of a graceful departure. It's also obscuring the true alternative to withdrawal: endless occupation. But what our ignominious exit really reflects is the failure of America's foreign policy establishment at both prediction and policymaking in Afghanistan.

"The pro-war crowd sees this as a mechanism by which they can absolve themselves of an accounting for the last 20 years," Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, told me. "Just think about the epic size of this policy failure. Twenty years of training. More than $2 trillion worth of expenditure. For almost nothing. It is heartbreaking to watch these images, but it is equally heartbreaking to think about all of the effort, of lives and money we wasted in pursuit of a goal that was illusory."

Let's widen the lens. Why was the US in Afghanistan for 20 years

Canadians -- incredibly -- believed the "mission" in Afghanistan (no war please, we're Canadian) was for women's freedom! This was perfect for the country's positive self-image, and its apparently unshakeable belief in its military as a force for good in the world. 

In the US, the invasion of Afghanistan was supposedly a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Conveniently forgotten: the invasion was planned well before that date. Like all US invasions, the real goals were corporate interests and imperialism.

The history of multiple invasions and occupations of Afghanistan, by both the Soviet Union and the US, is long and complex, and I wouldn't begin to attempt to unravel it in a blog post. This interview with historian Ali Olomi in Vox makes for interesting reading.

Olomi, who is the host of the podcast Head on History, discussed the US’s funding of some factions of the mujahedeen, or Afghan guerrilla fighters, during the 1970s and ’80s; America’s rolling reasoning for its involvement in Afghanistan post-2001; and whether the US, even without soldiers present, is really gone.

Every US-led invasion carries a veneer of high-minded pretense, whether that is stopping the spread of communism or making the world safe from terrorism. Of course the US doesn't have exclusive rights to this type of propaganda. Since I've read a lot about resistance to "the Great War," Belgian babies and nuns spring to mind. The ruling class has been selling high-minded wars to the populace since time immemorial. Hence the term cannon-fodder.

I recall the testimony of one of the war resisters from our Toronto group. He was the former serviceperson with the highest rank and the most to lose. Stationed on an aircraft carrier, he had plotted the targets they had been ordered to bomb, and overlaid it with the route of a major US-backed pipeline. Voilà, a match! He realized what he and his division were protecting, who and what they were risking their lives for.

I applaud Joe Biden for having the guts to exit Afghanistan. The New York Times notes that, "In the end, the argument that won the day is that the future of Kenosha is more important than defending Kabul." (As far as I can tell, this "argument" was a random Twitter response to a White House tweet.) 

Sadly, the idea that military funds will be redirected to rebuilding US infrastructure and social programs is likely fantasy. If that does happen -- if the US's gargantuan military budget substantially shrinks and those funds are re-directed for the social good -- then Joe Biden will be a president of phenomenally historic stature. 

From my perspective, it's extremely difficult to imagine. But from 2016 on, I've been completely wrong about US politics. Nothing would please more than to be wrong on this, too.


ed asner, rest in power

People of my generation loved Ed Asner for his portrayal of Lou Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", and Allan and I both remember enjoying the spinoff "Lou Grant".*

But in my home, Ed Asner was admired for more than his canny character acting. Asner was a union man. He was president of the actors' union, a visible and vocal supporter of the United Farm Workers, and an outspoken critic of the brutal Reagan regime. With Ralph Waite, Asner co-founded a group of actors that supported human rights issues in El Salvador, where the US was lethally meddling at the time. It is widely believed that Asner's outspoken activism led to the cancellation of the popular, Emmy Award-winning "Lou Grant," and that he was blacklisted from the entertainment business for many years.

In Ed Asner, American SocialistThe Nation's John Nichols writes:
"When we can discuss socialism rationally. It will be as if a heavy curtain has been lifted from man’s eyes.” Those were not the words of Karl Marx or Eugene Victor Debs, though either of those radical thinkers might well have uttered them.
Those were the words of Ed Asner, the actor who became a household name in the role of gruff but lovable Lou Grant, the boss at a TV station, in the 1970s TV comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He then carried the character over, with a new job as a Los Angeles newspaper editor, to one of the most socially conscious programs in the history of television, the eponymous Lou Grant of the late 1970s and early ’80s. 
When he died Sunday, at age 91, after a storied career that included multiple runs on Broadway, dozens of TV and movie roles, and even a star turn as the voice of Carl Fredricksen in the Academy Award–winning 2009 film Up, the Associated Press obituary described Asner as a “liberal.” Asner chose more robust language. A self-proclaimed “old-time lefty,” he proudly embraced the label “socialist” at a time when many of the most radical people in public life avoided it.
This 1982 profile from the Washington Post is a great read: "The Actor as Activist". It closes with this.
Yesterday he announced that he and his colleagues in entertainment would play an increasingly active role in political matters, that they have no expertise, it's true, but "we are all American citizens and our visibility gives us a special responsibility."

And does he think that in the process they're losing their identities as actors? "I hope to furbish my identity as a concerned human being," Asner said. "If it costs the actor, then so be it."

With Dennis Weaver, 1978

Eastern Airlines strike, 1989

With Cesar Chavez

* "Sopranos" fans might want to check out a young Nancy Marchand, whose character Mrs. Pynchon was modeled after Katharine Graham, owner of the Washington Post.


chuck close, rest in peace

The artist Chuck Close died last week at the age of 81. He was an incredibly talented artist, a progressive thinker, and a diehard New Yorker who was often seen around town, especially in museums and galleries.

I had the good fortune to interview Close at his studio in 1998. I saw a few paintings in progress, and had a glass of wine with him. The interview was for a cover story for New Mobility magazine, and at that point, a highlight of my writing career.

My interview with Close is notable, in my mind, for a foolish gaffe I made in the published story. Close said something off the record, then talked for a very long time, and I assumed the off-record part was very brief -- turns out it was the whole long story. 

He was gracious about it towards me, but furious at the magazine who allowed the story to run without checking with him first. The online edition was edited, but in 1998, print was still ascendant in the magazine world. 

The quote caused Close no small embarrassment, and of course I was embarrassed, too. But I was also secretly pleased that I was able to include an unvarnished truth that the subject preferred withheld. 

If you're interested, here's the story. 

goodbye charlie watts

Charlie Watts was the greatest rock and roll drummer of all time. He's the reason the Stones' music has so much swing, why it skips and chugs and rolls and flies, where so much rock merely clumps and plods. His playing was always described as propulsive.  

And of course Charlie was known for his deadpan style, his bemused, unflappable demeanour. He always talked about hating touring, but loving playing with the band, the central, unresolvable dilemma of his life. I love how he always mentioned his fascination with jazz.

Everyone jokes about how Keith Richards will outlive us all. But one by one, the original members of the Rolling Stones will die, and I will be gutted, every time.


portland street art

Our pics of murals, other street art, and food carts in Portland's Alberta Arts District are now online. The photos themselves are nothing special, but the murals are very cool: here on Flickr.

I also added a link to the photos in the post about our day in Portland.

what i'm reading: you could look it up: the reference shelf from ancient babylon to wikipedia

This must be the book-nerd-iest post ever, and unless books are your profession, possibly the biggest book geek-out you'll ever read. And I'm proud to bring it to you.

You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia, by Jack Lynch, is a joy to read, endlessly fascinating, and for aficionados of books or history, extremely entertaining. 

YCLIU is organized in short chapters, each highlighting two related, contrasted, works of reference. Between the small chapters are even shorter half-chapters on relevant, often amusing topics. 

The organization may seem a bit complicated, but it works wonderfully in the reader's favour. The author, no doubt, knows a lot more about each book he has highlighted, and I imagine could easily overwhelm us with information. Instead, he crafts a concise and lively summary, highlighting whatever is most unusual and interesting about that particular book. 

Some of the creators became household names, synonymous with their work: Roget, Webster, Hoyle, Post. Others dominate within professions: Gray's, Black's, Merck. (The card catalogue belongs in this category, and true to librarianship values, it was never branded.) There are collections of medieval medical knowledge, catalogues of sciences of the ancient world, maps of the stars, maps of the world. There are several dictionaries and encyclopedias, which take multiple forms, without even widespread agreement on the differences between the two. From the (marvelous) introduction:

You Could Look It Up does not pretend to be comprehensive, touching on all the world's important reference works -- no book could do that. Instead, it contains accounts of fifty great works I find interesting, maybe because they are the first of their kind, maybe the biggest, or the most learned, or the most controversial, or the most influential, or maybe just the most eccentric or quixotic.  . . .  In my pairings I choose two more or less contemporary works on related subjects and set them in their historical context. . . . Tucked between the chapters are shorter interludes that introduce stories that would otherwise go untold in a strictly linear history. In telling fifty little stories, I hope one big story emerges, as well as histories of some of the major reference genres -- dictionary, encyclopedia, atlas, and so on. 

The topical half-chapters are particularly fun. These include information overload (first recorded between 450 and 200 B.C.E.), plagiarism, bookshelf organization, famous errors and omissions, sexism, unfinished or lost projects, a list of some quirky and strange reference books -- and many more. The half-chapters, each only two or three pages, make addictive reading; the breadth of human knowledge represented is astounding.

For a topic that may seem so specific, this book will have great appeal for people who, like me, love to learn bits about everything -- and anyone who loves language. Each short chapter reveals the book itself, and the social context of its creation. Why was this book needed? What problem was the creator trying to resolve, and to what extent did they succeed? How does the work reflect the values of its era? How did it advance progress -- or prevent it? How did the work change lives, and whose lives did it change -- scholars, merchants, professionals, ordinary people? 

The creation of each work (they're not all books, strictly speaking) is often the most interesting part of the story. Lynch, an English professor at Rutgers University, has an uncanny ability to highlight details that make what could be a dry synopsis entertaining and often amusing. It's difficult to choose from the dozens of examples that I tagged, but here are a few.

From a chapter about logarithmic tables -- the forerunner of the slide rule, itself the forerunner of the pocket calculator, now made redundant by personal computers and smartphones.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the French engineer Gaspard Clair Francois Marie Riche de Prony oversaw one such workshop. Inspired by Adam Smith's recently published Treatise on the Wealth of Nations (1776), he assembled a team of some sixty unemployed hairdressers to carry out his instructions. (In the wake of the French Revolution there was less call for high-end hairdressers, not least because, thanks to Citizen Joseph-Ignace Guillotin's eponymous invention, fewer aristocratic heads needed dressing.)
From a chapter about catalogues of erotic writing.

To twenty-first-century sensibilities, seventeenth-century pornography does not seem very pornographic. Aristotle's Master-Piece sometimes reads more like a sermon than a sex guide. . . . Once the book gets going, though, there is little doubt that it should be categorized as what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called a "livre √† lire d'une seule main," a book to be read with one hand. 

From a chapter about two massive dictionaries, the creators of each taking different approaches to their task.

The next editor, though, was a winner: a forty-two-year-old Scot named James Murray. (Later he would pick up a knighthood and a pair of middle initials, becoming Sir James. A. H. Murray, but the initials do not seem to stand for anything.)

In this chapter, Lynch describes two different methods of defining words: splitters and lumpers. He calls Murray of Pompous Initials a "card-carrying splitter". 

People who created reference works tend towards the obsessives. In the same chapter as Sir James of the Nonsense Initials, there is the story of William Dodd. Dodd's obsession with compiling quotes from Shakespeare cost him his life.

Dodd hoped his Beauties would not merely entertain his readers but would edify them as well -- from Shakespeare, readers would learn valuable lessons of morality. But he should have paid more attention to a passage he included under "A Father's Advice to his Son, going to travel," in which Polonius advised Laertes against being a borrower or a lender. In 1777, Dodd found himself in debt, and he forged Lord Chesterfield's name on a bond worth £4,200 -- this at a time when a middle-class family could live comfortably on less than £100 a year. When the forgery was discovered, he was sentenced to death by handing. Samuel Johnson pleaded for mercy, and more than twenty thousand people joined in signing a petition begging the crown to commute the sentence. It was in vain. Dodd was hanged at Tyburn in 1777, after prompting one of Johnson's more memorable quotations: "Depend upon it, Sir," he said, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

* * * *

Lynch demonstrates how reference works reveal cultural attitudes, beliefs, and biases. I was familiar with some examples -- such as the Index, the notorious work of the Catholic Church, and the DSM, which infamously defined much of human sexuality as pathology -- but most were new to me. About Hobson-Jobson, the English-language dictionary of colonial India, Lynch says "the book ends up being a social history despite itself." He attests to the book's racism -- and makes no excuses or justifications for this -- but also reveals how under the often offensive exterior, the book documents a historic cultural shift, evidenced by language.

Lynch makes a very strong case for the reference book as foundational to human progress. At various times, the creation of a new reference work helped form revolutionary thought, created a national identity, enabled science and modern medicine to progress, or enabled ordinary people to educate themselves. 

I loved the author's passion for his subject, and his true scholar's openness to learning across all cultures and time periods. Lynch prizes all collectors of knowledge no matter what the source. This quality should be universal, but of course it is not, and it's a pleasure to come across. He also doesn't fear change. He fully embraces the digital era, acknowledging both its wonders and its pitfalls.

Lynch's writing is so lively and animated, that if you have an interest in the books, in language, and in a sweeping world history, you are very likely to enjoy this. The way it's organized makes it an ideal book to read in portions, perhaps between novels -- although I would recommend reading it in the order written.

In short, if you're a book geek, this book is so much fun.

* * * *

Only now will I share that I didn't like YCLIU when I first picked it up. I thought the organization of the book was too precious, even silly. I read a few pages, and let it go. 

But that just seemed ridiculous. I love reference books! And I'm a librarian! Not that most librarians do much reference anymore -- I certainly don't -- but still, knowing where and how to search for information a core part of my profession. How could I not want to read this book??

I gave it another chance, and...  I loved it. What's more, the organization is genius. 

* * * *

I have always loved reference books. 

As a child, if I had a school assignment that sent me to an encyclopedia, I would get lost flipping through the book and reading random entries. The same for a dictionary! I'd look up one word, I'd start skimming dozens of definitions. But now, even with a print dictionary and multiple thesauri within reach on my desk, I will quickly google a word to confirm its meaning, thus missing the opportunity to browse. And this from someone who loves print reference. I am rarely nostalgic, but this seems sad.

I can still lose myself in a paper map or atlas, looking at place-names and thinking about their origin. When I was a child, my native New York State always seemed so interesting that way, its place-names revealing layers of history: English, Dutch, and Native American. 

My personal reference shelf includes two treasured books that were (two separate) birthday gifts from my mother: a hardcover thesaurus, The New Roget's Thesaurus in Dictionary Form, and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 16th Edition. These were incredibly meaningful gifts. We didn't own many books, and even fewer hardcovers. My mother was affirming my writerly self. 

Many years later, I was excited to add a copy of the AP Stylebook to my reference shelf; it was a milestone in my writing life.

Through a lengthy email friendship, I ended up with an The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and a copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

Pre-internet, Allan and I would look things up in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide and The Rolling Stone Record Guide (neither of which we own anymore). 

And of course, there is The Baseball Encyclopedia, foundational in our home.

Here are reference books we own.

These are in my office, in easy reach, although I rarely reach for them anymore.

These live on our shared shelves.

Just the one on the left.

Despite Google Maps, we still use this frequently.

I haven't opened these in eons, but I hang onto them.

Ditto, although with less feeling attached.

These are books I contributed to and helped create.
I also contributed to a children's world encyclopedia.

These are a sample of the reference books on Allan's shelves.


a childhood book and a dream for humanity: in henry's backyard (1948)

When I was a child, my family had a book called In Henry's Backyard. My siblings and I read it repeatedly. The book tells the story of a man who learns that all the "races of man" are equal.

Over many years and decades, my brother has mentioned this book, an artifact from our youth. With the advent of the internet, I was able to suggest a few sites where he might be able to find a copy of In Henry's Backyard. And he did.

During our recent vacation, hanging out on the deck of my brother and sister-in-law's home, my brother mentioned the book, and I was excited to hold it in my hands, a piece of my personal history.

Seeing the cover was transporting! By today's standards, the illustrations are racist caricatures, and the concepts are all drawn from stereotypes. But in the context of its time, this book was decidedly anti-racist

In Henry's Backyard disputes claims of racial superiority. Its claims: physical differences between humans are superficial; humans of all colours have equal potential; humans of all colours may be good or bad, smart or stupid, kind or unkind.

Here's the inside blurb of In Henry's Backyard.

As my brother read a random page aloud, I suddenly remembered a line from the book. One portion refutes the idea that brain size is somehow linked to intelligence, a concept that was in vogue at the time. I called out, Wait wait wait . . . and the biggest brain belonged to an imbecile! Long-term memory, eh?

As I paged through the front matter, I was even more amazed to see this.

Imagine my surprise -- and my pride -- at discovering that In Henry's Backyard this book was born of the labour movement! The UAW! Walter Reuther! My heart swells thinking of it.

* * * *

I was recently involved in a discussion about the book Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George. (George also wrote one of my favourite childhood books, My Side of the Mountain, which I mentioned here, in a post about the book Hatchet.) In Julie of the Wolves, Inuk people are referred to as Eskimos, now an antiquated and derogatory term.

A colleague suggested this book doesn't belong on our shelves. And they were right. Children don't need to read Julie of the Wolves; there are far more modern and relevant books that cover the same ground. 

But I felt the need to put Julie in context. The intent of the book was not racist. George was using the terminology of the time. We might also point out that George was white, and was telling an Inuit story. It would be better for Inuk to tell their own stories. True enough. But in 1972, telling a positive story about an Inuit person and about wolves was itself progressive.

Similarly, I would never suggest that In Henry's Backyard should be reprinted, and it certainly doesn't belong on library shelves today. But it shouldn't be dismissed as offensive or hidden as an embarrassment. In the context of its time, it was light-years ahead. As my brother said, "It makes a point that is yet to be embraced."

who else turned 60 this year: celebrating the bc ndp

The great Tommy Douglas
was an MP for a BC riding in the 1960s.
I recently learned that the BC NDP -- the party I vote for, the party that currently leads the provincial government -- is 60 years old this year. 

There's a website showing highlights of the party's accomplishments. It's impressive, and it explains why I vote for them. 

In a sense, it explains why I moved to Canada: the fact that there's a viable party I can feel good about voting for, a party that shares my values. That means my politics are not freakish or extreme in Canadian culture. It means I belong here, more than I ever did in the US. 

Right now, both my MP (federal) and my MLA (as provincial representatives are called here) are both NDP: Rachel Blaney and Michele Babchuk (who was elected after long-serving Claire Trevena retired). They are both outstanding representatives. I met Rachel Blaney when Port Hardy held its first-ever Pride event; she came all the way up to Port Hardy to join in. 

* * * *

Many leftists are angry at the BC NDP for its support of the logging industry -- for allowing more forest to be logged. Now that I live in a "resource town," as it is called here, I see why this is. It's one thing to hear vaguely about the economic impacts of the failing logging, mining and fishing industries. It's quite another thing to see people struggle for survival in an area almost completely dependent on extraction. Or, as is often the case, struggle to remain in the middle class -- to have enough stability to pay a mortgage, keep the kids playing sports. In other words, the same concerns as millions of other families. 

This doesn't mean I want to see all the old-growth forests felled and all the oceans overfished. It means I understand the political struggle in a different way.

In BC, no party is going to form the government campaigning on shutting down the logging industry. If the BC NDP were too vocal about curtailing logging, it wouldn't win an election. And if the NDP doesn't win the election, it won't be able to do all the good things: support and expand child care, build affordable housing, expand health care, fund education.

And if the NDP isn't elected, not only won't we have a government doing good for all people, we would be suffering from all the very bad things the Conservatives or Liberals would most assuredly do. We'd suffer through corporate tax cuts and an austerity agenda. 

So the BC NDP walks a fine line. Logging families think the government is weak and gives in to the tree-huggers. Lefties and environmentalists think the party sells out by allowing too much logging. 

A brief history of the BC NDP

Perhaps this is what caused Rachel Notley's government to implode in Alberta. I don't know. (I'm sure someone will be along to tell us!) But when Canada's most right-wing province elected an NDP government, I knew that government would support the expansion of the tar sands. It could not be otherwise.

This doesn't speak to the faults of the NDP: it speaks to the reality and the limitations of electoral politics. 

It's also why the path to creating change must begin outside electoral politics, in the grassroots -- educating ourselves and others, gathering support, creating campaigns, applying political pressure. 

And it's why any win for the grassroots will always be partial -- will always be, on some level, a disappointment. But that doesn't mean it won't be significant and have a very positive impact on people's lives. 

* * * *

Here's something else I've heard from nominally progressive Canadians: the Liberal Party, historically, is responsible for everything that's good about Canada -- that all positive change in Canadian society has come under Liberal governments. While perhaps this is technically true -- since the NDP has never formed a federal government -- it's a false narrative. Would the Liberals have done anything progressive without pressure from the left? Without knowing that they might lose left-leaning, "liberal" (in the American sense of the word) voters? 

Here's a snip from a story in Canadian Dimension about the birth of universal health insurance in Canada. (Emphasis mine.) We know that the movement to universal health insurance began under the CCF, which later became the NDP. The NDP weren't in government, but their presence exerted the necessary political pressure on both the Liberals and Conservatives.

By 1964 the pro-Medicare forces in the country were riding the crest of public opinion during a period when the political culture was moving to the left. The political alignment of national parties saw six years of minority governments over three elections between 1962 and 1968, and this favoured those political forces attempting to move the country in a more progressive direction. The NDP was growing and this strengthened left Liberals who argued that their party must protect their left flank. This in turn encouraged the red Tories within the Progressive Conservatives, who argued that the party must move left to remain electorally competitive. All of this was occurring during a minority situation when an election might occur at any time and no party wanted to be caught on the wrong side of a popular issue like public Medicare.

It took fierce struggles within both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parliamentary parties, but in the end the party whips forced the right wing into submission. The National Medical Care Insurance Act was passed in the House of Commons on December 8, 1966, by an overwhelming vote of 177 to 2. The starting date was July 1, 1968, and the Act provided that the federal government would pay about half of Medicare costs in any province with insurance plans that met the criteria of being universal, publicly administered, portable and comprehensive. By 1971 all provinces had established plans which met the criteria.

* * * *

Speaking of healthcare, when I moved to BC, I was surprised to learn that residents of this province paid monthly premiums. In Ontario, the cost of health insurance is calculated in provincial taxes, according to income. (Ours was about $1,200 per year for two people.) In BC, residents would pay monthly, also on an income-based scale. 

For the past decade, under Liberal governments, those costs had been rising steadily. In 2015, the maximum premium was $864 annually per person, or $1,728 per family. By 2018, the individual premium was $125 per month or $1,500 annually, and the annual family premium was $3,000. If you have good employment with benefits, that monthly premium may be covered by your employer. But obviously that's a condition that many people don't meet.

The BC NDP promised that, if elected, they would eliminate these fees. The Liberals trotted out charts and graphs supposedly proving that without these fees, the Province would go bankrupt. 

The NDP was elected, and it kept its promise: the monthly premiums were eliminated in January 2020. No services have been cut. Services continue to expand. 

Why wouldn't I vote for the party that does that?

* * * *

I hope many of you have seen this video of Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, then a Member of Parliament, speaking about her experience in the House of Commons, after deciding not to stand for re-election. It's a powerful speech, shared widely on social media. I hope you will watch it or re-watch it. 

Mumilaaq also explains why she stands with the NDP; she also specifically mentions my MP, Rachel Blaney.


using mailchimp for subscribe-by-email is no longer working (updated: it is working?!)

If you subscribed to this blog through the widget on the sidebar, that service is no longer working. Mailchimp's free option has a cap on sends -- not only how many email addresses you can send at a time (which I knew) but how many you can send, cumulatively** (which I didn't know). 

Even the lowest paid Mailchimp option is more than I need. And since reading this blog is free, writing it should be free, too. 

I am still receiving emails for blogs I subscribe to, but I don't know how long that will last. Perhaps Blogger hasn't gotten around to completely killing Feedburner yet.

So... anyone who wants to read this blog will have to figure out how to continue without the email alerts. This makes me sad, but I also don't want to fuss with it anymore.

* * * *

** It appears the service is working! Perhaps the cap on sends is monthly, and by blogging every day while we were traveling, I hit the limit. And now the monthly allowance begins again. 

In which case, I will put the "subscribe by email" widget back on the sidebar. And this gives me an opportunity to tweak that a bit.

Nothing to see here. Carry on.


friends and family reuinion road trip: day fourteen: portland to delta, in which we miss a crucial step

Step one: you must use an app

We left Portland and drove north uneventfully. As we approached the border, I remembered that we were supposed to use the "ArriveCAN" app to facilitate our return. We considered pulling over to use it, but didn't. Then the fun began.

The border agent checked our passports, then asked to see the information on the app. We told her we didn't have the app but had our vaccination cards.

Border Guard said she couldn't accept our cards -- that she couldn't even look at them.

Border Guard escalated her questions. In my experience on both sides of the border, when anything is a little off, you get a lot more questions. She asked the alcohol, tobacco, firearms question three separate times. She asked if we were bringing vaccines into the country. She expressed skepticism that we hadn't gone shopping, or that we had only bought books. Many questions.

BG said she didn't have to let us use the app now, but that she would. This time. I find this is also fairly typical: "I don't have to do this, but I will grant you this privilege."

Something about this seems not quite right. BG says we can enter Canada "by right," but we can't enter without using the app and she doesn't have to let us in to use the app. And without the app we would be subject to quarantine.

I said I had read that fully vaccinated Canadians re-entering the company no longer had to be quarantined. This seemed to piss off BG and she scolded me: fourth wave of covid, surging numbers, delta variant, blah blah blah. She wrote some stuff on a card, and told us to see an agent inside. 

Step two: use the app, but you must be tested

The CBSA agent inside was friendly and seemed to assume we didn't use the app because we had trouble with the technology. I found this amusing, but of course I didn't say anything. We sat down to use the magical app -- scanned our vaccine cards, our passports, relevant dates, and so on.

The agent said we did great (ha!) then noted we left blank the part about our recent covid test.

We tell her we have not been tested. 

She repeated that we were allowed to enter Canada by right, but because we had not shown the result of a covid test, we would likely be quarantined. But, she said, that was not within her jurisdiction. We would have to speak with a public health officer. She made it very clear that there was the CBSA issue (app) and the PHO issue (covid test), and her role was finished.

Step three: you must be tested or you will be fined

The PHO took it from the top. She collected all our information from our vaccination cards, our reasons for being in the US, home addresses, etc., writing down everything longhand, in an notebook.

PHO also confirmed that we can enter Canada "by right," provided we have met certain requirements. And one of the requirements is proof of a negative covid test within 72 hours of crossing.

Believe me, had I known this, we would have gotten tested!

PHO said we had two options. We could go back to the US and get tested, then provide the PHO with the test results, or we "may be subject to a fine". The fine is a lot

She gave us some information, printed from the government website, detailing what kind of covid tests are acceptable, and some places where we can get tested. Some test results may be available within 24 hours. Others take several days.

We sat down again, and began calling testing facilities. It wasn't easy.

Some places have only online registration, but the URL doesn't work, or you need a US address, or it says to call the number that just sent you online.

One place said there is a national shortage of test kits and they have stopped all testing.

Another place was open until 4:30, but here was a 2-3 hour wait. It was 3:45, and the place was at least 30 minutes away.

Another place said results take three or four days.

Two or three places were not accessible by either phone or internet.

At that point, I was prepared to choose what's behind door number two. If we're fined, I would try to get it waived or reduced.

We tell PHO we can't find a way to make this work -- the proper test, with results available within an acceptable time frame -- and we'll opt for the fine.

Step four: now get tested, but someone else might fine you

Now PHO says she has no power to fine us, that will be up to the RCMP.

And still we're not free to go. Despite being fully vaccinated, and despite the fact that fully vaccinated people can enter Canada without quarantine, we must be tested at the border, and we will have to self-isolate.

PHO went over the rules for self-isolating. I have already done this once -- although I didn't tell her that! -- so I know the drill. 

Next we are sent to the testing tent. Some very kind health workers gave us two test kits each -- one for Day One and one for Day Eight. They helped us register the kits, linking the kit IDs with our passports. It's a multi-step process involving a lot of onscreen typing. We're doing this outside, standing up, outside the tent. I was tired and felt dehydrated. The whole process seemed ableist and ageist. 

After that, another kind health worker walked us through a self-administered covid test. It was easy and didn't involve any pain or discomfort. 

That was the Day One test. For the Day Eight test, we will give ourselves the test while while being observed via Microsoft Teams. 

Step five is in the future: we may or may not be fined

Finally, we were allowed to leave. The dogs had been waiting in the car and were pretty happy to see us. We drove to the Coast Tsawwassen Inn, had a good dinner in our room, and took an early ferry in the morning. We had an easy, uneventful drive home, and are happy to be here.

We're self-isolating now, and I assume we will get a visit from the RCMP. But I have a hard time believing that we will be fined. We didn't travel before being fully vaccinated. We traveled for a family reunion. We didn't know we needed a covid test, or we would have had gotten one. I can't see our local RCMP fining us in these circumstances. But we shall see!


friends and family road trip reunion: day thirteen: portland: books, street art, food

Portland is as advertised: an interesting city with a lot going on. We both look forward to returning, perhaps before or after a family visit. We got only a taste of the town, but it left us wanting more.

In the morning, we dropped off the dogs, along with their beds, toys, and treats, at the daycare, for their day in a private suite. Then we had a quick breakfast at a Peet's Coffee -- my favourite iced coffee -- and were at Powell's when it opened at 10:00.

Powell's. OMG Powell's. It is vast. It is beautifully organized. The staff is amazing. Their customer service is amazing. Did I mention it is vast? Powell's just may be the best bookstore I've ever visited.

Allan and I browsed a bit together, then split up. Since my brother successfully transplanted my old sim card and SD card into an old phone of his, we now have two phones and could safely go our separate ways. (I still need a new phone, but the loaner works as a stopgap.)

Allan had printed out his master to-look-for list, but my list somehow didn't make it here. It's not on Google Drive, not on my USB, not even saved in email drafts, which I often use to save something quickly. I was disappointed, but I contented myself to browse in subject sections. For fiction, I normally use the library, except for my favourite authors, which I'll buy new. But with nonfiction, I don't like the pressure of the due date, so I'm more likely to buy those titles. Often I borrow nonfiction from the library to see if I like it before buying.

As I've mentioned in various "what i'm reading" posts, my List -- the universe of books I might like to read -- is very long and goes back many years and decades. There are always titles growing old and older. I did remember a few authors' works I keep reading reviews of, consistently put on The List, but never seem to read. Little by little, as I browsed, names came back to me, and I was able to look them up on their customer-use computers. I remembered one title without an author and one author without a title... and slowly a mental short-list formed. I ended up with a big pile of nonfiction -- very satisfying.

When I bumped into Allan, we were both holding full shopping baskets, monstrously heavy! Allan found someone on staff to hide our baskets in a holds area. We both picked up fresh baskets, but I needed a break. I'm not a marathoner -- about anything. I had been choosing books for two hours. I needed to rest my feet and to eat something. Allan was still very busy tracking his list. 

I walked to a food cart "pod". Portland's many food carts are grouped into pods, where you can find many varieties of food in the same place. I'd read that many have picnic tables and covered areas. The one near Powell's -- also near our hotel -- has 12 carts, but no tables or even benches. This may be to discourage people without housing from using the facilities. I don't know if that's the case, but I knew I wanted to sit down. I bought pot stickers from a Vietnamese food cart, and ate them while walking back to Powell's. 

I was tired and felt dehydrated and was ready to leave, but Allan was in full-on search mode. We negotiated a bit. By the time I found a bathroom (in a Starbucks) and finished the dumplings, we were now three hours in. 

I spent a full 20 minutes walking in circles looking for a section that didn't seem to exist, plus fielded a phone call from TD Bank, telling me my credit card had been blocked for suspicious activity. Now nearly four hours had gone by, and Allan was still shopping.

I felt the day was shot, and announced I was going back to the room to lie down. This seemed to snap Allan out of his bookstore trance. We found a bench in the children's section, and went through our baskets. I put back any new titles that I can easily find at home. I was tired and cranky.

This scenario is pretty typical for me and Allan, and one of the reasons he usually goes to bookstores without me: a fun outing devolves into frustration and annoyance. No need for reminders: I know how lucky I am to share the love of reading, writing, language, and ideas with my partner. But that doesn't mean we don't get tired and cranky!

* * * *

Overheard at Powell's

Woman: Why are we here? I'm already reading a book.



Woman, frustrated and resigned: Fine, whatever, we'll stay, I'll just wait.

Man: I'm almost done, I'll only be a few more minutes.

Yeah, right.


Kids: I want this one! Oh look look look look! I've read this book four times! Oh look, I want this one! I want this one! 

Kids who love books! Make me so happy!


Adult with child: I'd like you to get a better book. Can you get one better book? 

Me to Allan as we walk away: Let him read whatever he wants, all the books are better books if he's reading them!


In the elevator, with a young staff member pushing a cart of books

Me: Do you like working here?

Staff: I really do. I love being around people who are excited about books. I love helping people find books. I love discovering books through our customers.

Me: I'm a librarian, and I say the same things.

Staff: Oooo, I would love to be a librarian...

Me: You can be. You should look into it. 

* * * *

We lugged our bags of books back to the hotel, drank a lot of water, rested our feet, and regrouped with a plan to see some street art. There are murals and street art all over Portland, but there are especially high concentrations in two areas: the Alberta Arts District, and the Central Eastside Industrial District. I found some useful maps of the areas, and asked front desk staff to print one for us.

The Portland Street Art Alliance sounds like an amazing group that does fascinating work. If you like public art, I encourage you to spend some time on their website, which includes information on why street art is a public good, and a reading list.

Their mural map of the Alberta Arts District (pdf here) gave this trenchant introduction:

The Alberta Arts District is a culturally rich and dynamic area that attracts people from all over the city with its fine art galleries, graffiti alleyways, and community murals.  Even the benches and ATMs are works of art! Galleries open their doors and vendors line the street for the monthly Last Thursday Art Walk. The annual Alberta Street Fair draws thousands of people into the streets for a party, complete with local music, food, buskers, and artists.  While many of Portland's neighborhoods have experienced revitalization, Alberta is unique because it was historically home to the highest concentration of African-Americans in the city. With a painful history of racial segregation, redlining, and now gentrification, Alberta is a place of juxtaposition. Few areas in Portland offer the variety of cultures and artistic interventions that can be found in Alberta. This map is just a starting point. The streets are always changing, and finding street art is often times like a scavenger hunt. We have provided you some insider clues, but now it is up to you to find the hidden treasures Alberta has to offer!
I enjoyed this -- not boosterism, not consumerism, but actual social context. And well-written, with the correct "its"!

We drove to the area, found a parking spot, and walked many blocks and saw many interesting murals (photos to follow). It was very hot. We saw two food-cart pods -- probably more than 10 carts between them, both with seating areas -- but it was just too hot.

NE Alberta Street is in the "fun and funky" stage of gentrification, full of independent stores of all types, progressive or radical politics displayed proudly, plenty of cheap eats and entertainment. But the next stage is also beginning to poke through. There are no chain stores (yet) but expensive boutiques are sprinkled in among the more earthy and affordable. I hope the neighbourhood can hold on to its unique life and beauty.

[Some cell-phone pictures of Portland street art are here.]

After murals and other street art, and a fresh, cold juice, we headed back to the hotel, dropped off the car (again), then walked over to the local food-truck pod. 

Many were already closed, which was just as well. From three separate trucks, we picked up a lamb shawarma, Chinese roast pork and rice, and a torta, which turned out to be ginormous. They cost $9-11 each.

We paid for valet parking, which seemed exorbitant until the bellman reduced it to half price. (I assume this is typical.) We've been making ample use of the unlimited in/out service, and have probably spent the other 50% in tips, but that's fine, I'd much rather the money go in a worker's pocket.

We brought the food back to the room to eat and enjoy some air-conditioning. The food was delicious, and we haven't even touched the torta yet. 

After that we picked up the dogs, who were happy and tired. I'd like to know more about how the day went... I may try to get some information. 

Back at the room, Allan was plotting a walk to Voodoo Doughnuts for some baked goods. Donuts don't do much for me, and wacky toppings do even less, but we did identify a few flavours that I wouldn't mind having a taste of. Then Allan asked if he could go back to Powell's. That was kind of cute, because he doesn't need my permission, and kind of annoying, because if he was going back, why did we spend four hours there?

But that's the way it goes. He didn't anticipate having a second shot. I had time to write, and he got two more books, then got lost, then found the doughnuts and came back with a box of four. They were fresh and tasty -- but over-rated. But I would say that about any donuts.

* * * *

I want to note that we have seen hundreds of tent encampments, on the approaches to every city, and within cities themselves. This is very, very sad. Shameful.

Today we begin our two-day drive back to Port Hardy. Allan is ready to go home. I never am: I can always travel more, especially when the dogs are with us. 

I'm pleased to report I have not checked my work email once, the entire trip. I will definitely look at it on the weekend, at least to delete hundreds of useless emails.