4.03.2021

beverly cleary, rest in peace, and thank you

Beverly Cleary, who died last week at the astounding age of 104, was a pivotal figure in the world of children's literature. Her books are treasures; her influence can scarcely be measured.

Cleary was one of the first authors to feature young characters who were realistically imperfect. If she was not the first, then certainly she was the first popular, widely-read writer who, as The Atlantic put it, "saw children as they are". 

Before Henry Huggins and Ramona, before Otis and Ellen and Ralph S. Mouse, children's literature was preachy and moralistic. The sanitized characters bore little resemblance to actual children. Books typically stood above children, and spoke at them. Cleary's books stood beside children and reflected them. 

Cleary's books were among the first that respected children -- their intelligence, their experiences. This would become the norm, of course, but it started somewhere, and that somewhere is Beverly Cleary. 

From a tribute (not the obit) in The New York Times:

The much-adored author of 42 books for children, who was declared a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress in 2000, died on Thursday at the age of 104.

To borrow a response from Cleary's most famous character, Ramona Quimby: "Guts! Guts! Guts!" What else is there to say?

Cleary's novels — "The Mouse and the Motorcycle," "Henry and Ribsy" and "Ralph S. Mouse," just to name a few — are now in the hands of a third generation of readers. Her books are a cornerstone of modern children's literature, front and center in the bedtime canon, and among the first that many young children enjoy on their own. She was the recipient of every accolade available to authors of books for young readers — from the Newbery Medal to the National Book Award — and will remain alive in the imagination of every child who met Ramona and Beezus Quimby, Henry Huggins, Otis Spofford, Ellen Tebbits or any one of her dear, flawed, funny characters, and thought: "That's me."

I also loved this context for Cleary's most popular character, Ramona. 

One could argue that Ramona was the forerunner of what is now known as "girl power." Before Junie B. Jones and Ivy and Bean arrived on bookshelves, before words like "fierce" and "boss" migrated from zoos and office parks onto girls' T-shirts, she was strutting around with her hands on her hips, signing her name with a flourish — whiskers, pointy ears and a tail on the Q. No heart over the "i" for this girl.

"She was not a slowpoke grown-up," Cleary wrote in "Ramona and Her Mother". "She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next."

Right now I happen to be reading a biography of Louise Fitzhugh, who created the prototype of girl power for my generation, and many to follow. Harriet the Spy was published in 1964, Beezus and Ramona in 1955. I think Fitzhugh must have been influenced by Cleary... but I'll find out. 

Many women cite Nancy Drew as a character that inspired them, and certainly series like the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries gave children agency. But those characters are fantasies. Fantasies are useful and important, but they don't bring children recognition, a feeling of belonging, a comfort that they are not alone, that readers find from realistic depictions of lives and feelings.

From a 21st Century perspective, Cleary's books exhibit a seeming total absence of diversity. Every character is white, as was the custom of the day. But girlsGirls are front and centre. Girls have agency. Girls are the boss. At the time, this was diversity.

Henry Huggins was the first book I ever read. Naturally I read it many, many times. As you may know, the story involves a boy who finds a lost dog, so skinny that its ribs are showing, hence the name Henry gives the pup. 

Here's the part that is an indelible memory. The original owner shows up and insists the dog is his. He and Henry argue. They agree to let the dog decide, each person calling the dog, hoping the dog will choose him. The interloper uses the dog's original name, which of course Henry never knew. Unfair! Then Henry realizes he, too, can use the dog's old name... and Ribsy runs to him. Hurrah!

My family didn't have a dog yet, and I dreamed of finding a Ribsy and taking him home. Little did I know!

This 2011 interview with Cleary in The Atlantic is wonderful: "Beverly Cleary: 'I Just Wrote About Childhood as I Had Known It'".

The official Beverly Cleary website gives a great perspective on the characters she created.

Beverly Cleary, thank you, thank you, thank you!

3.22.2021

reflections on a year of piano lessons by a dedicated (and untalented) student

The covid lockdown began on March 17, 2020. On March 20, I began piano lessons.

I took piano lessons from age 6-10, before switching to violin (a mistake), then quitting. I later resumed piano lessons as a teenager -- a very positive experience that ended when I left home for university. 

It was always assumed that I would one day inherit our family piano. That didn't turn out as planned, but that magnificent heirloom has stayed in the family, and in a wonderfully random way, I ended up with a piano anyway. I told this story here: why it is interesting and significant that i own a piano.

As soon as that happened, I decided that I would find a way to take piano lessons again. The pandemic presented me with the perfect opportunity. I did some research, and easily identified Pianote as my method of choice: in which i begin re-learning how to play piano -- using pianote.com.

And now I've been learning piano for one year! So... some thoughts.

  • Pianote has exceeded my expectations. It is a fantastic program, a brilliant combination of self-directed learning with a huge array of resources and support. I now have a lifetime membership -- an investment in myself. 
  • Learning as an adult is great! I use the methods and resources that work for me, and ignore the ones that don't. (More detail on this below.)
  • Shorter practices are better.
  • For the first six months, I practiced every day. Never missed a day! But at some point my practice routine had grown ridiculously long and tiring. With advice from Pianote teachers, I shortened and simplified the routine. Now my practice fits in better with my life and my (in)ability to concentrate. I now practice five or six days each week for roughly 30 minutes per day. On days I feel too rushed or stressed to practice, I've adopted the habit of at least playing some scales or other warm-up exercises for five minutes. 

  • I actually remembered a few things from my childhood lessons!
  • I did not remember how to read music, but I was able to recognize certain notes. I also remembered the mnemonics for note-reading and, strangely, the pattern of the major scale: whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. Perhaps I should have expected some bits to be lodged in long-term memory, but still, it amazed me.

  • I am seeing progress!
  • Up to now, my playing has been hampered by my almost constant need to look at my hands. I'd unintentionally memorize bits of a song, and look at my hands while playing it. Then, looking up at the sheet music, I'd be lost. This kept my playing sounding very hesitant and choppy. Just now, after a full year, I find myself able to sight-read without looking at my hands! Which leads me to conclude that...

  • My learning is very slow.
  • I have zero musical aptitude, and learning to do something you are not naturally good at is very challenging! Which leads to my number one rule...

  • Think small!
  • When something I am trying to learn -- any challenging phrase, any rhythm, any tiny bit of hand independence -- becomes less difficult, when I move from painfully trying to a basic ability, that's a win. Any. Tiny. Thing. Because really, what is learning if not a collection of tiny wins, strung together?

    --------

    Regarding Pianote, here's what I ignore -- and what I adore.

    The Metronome. The principal instructor at Pianote -- who is amazing -- believes that using a metronome for some part of every practice is essential. Free digital metronomes are available online (google metronome) and I did try it, but ran away screaming. My hearing isn't great, and my concentration is even worse, and I just couldn't stand it. So, no metronome!

    The Q&A. Pianote features a weekly live Q&A with instructors, with questions submitted in advance. (The session is later posted as a video.) Pianote students from all over the world participate in this, a group piano lesson and hangout. I tried this a few times, but I found it tedious and time-wasting. If I have a question, I'll post it to a forum, leave a comment below a lesson, or if necessary, email an instructor. So, no live Q&A for me!

    The Student Review. Similarly, there is a weekly live lesson. Students submit video clips, then get support, advice, and critiques, as well as some experience playing in front of a (virtual) audience. Many students regard this as Pianote's best feature, and what sets it apart from other online learning experiences.

    I tried this once. I didn't find it at all helpful -- except to clarify that I have no interest in playing in front of an audience of any kind. It's simply not part of my learning goals. So, no more Student Review!

    To each their own, eh?

    But there are so many features of Pianote that I love!

    I love the beautiful set of books that complement the Foundations course. I read them all while working my way through Foundations, and I continue to use them for reference.

    I love the ability to download and print sheet music.

    I love the "Quick Tips" -- short mini-lessons focusing on one specific technique, practice tip, or challenge.

    I love the Planner, a beautiful book that helps me track my progress.

    I love the fluidity of learning both ear training and sight-reading, and using a combination of various methods and learning styles to learn to read music.

    I love learning music theory, and Pianote's approach to it. It feels like unlocking the mystery of how music is created. 

    I love the supportive community, and although I don't spend a huge amount of time there, I do enjoy supporting other students, and seeing different perspectives and styles.

    I love the incredibly user-friendly website that really leverages design to support learning.

    I love learning at my own pace and through my own path.

    And above all, I love the amazing teaching staff, headed by the incomparable (and Canadian!) Lisa Witt.

    3.21.2021

    roots and icebergs: decolonizing community spaces: a workshop

    I recently attended a six-hour workshop called Decolonizing Community Spaces. The workshop was led by two facilitators, one a Native American speaking to us from her traditional territories in Montana, and the other a Filipina-Canadian. 

    About 30 people attended; I believe all were health and service providers in the province of BC. 

    All the other participants raved about how much they learned, and how they will change their daily practices accordingly. I don't know if they were exaggerating, or if they were starting from a different place than I was. I encountered few, if any, ideas that were new to me, and was left feeling hopeless about the prospects for change. This was clearly not the intended result!

    Making the invisible visible

    Much of the course was spent on activities aimed at making visible the many invisible forces and conditions that shape our world. My graduate school experience in Information Sciences often involved similar exercises. One often-used example is uncovering the bias embedded in classification systems, whether the Dewey Decimal System, the dog breed standards, or any other. You quickly learn that no systems are purely objective; there are assumptions and biases built in to every human-made system. 

    This is turn reminds me of another favourite topic of mine: how certain beliefs and actions outside the mainstream are labelled "political", while the dominant narrative is thought of as apolitical. For example, my choosing to sit as the crowd in a ballpark cheers a military display is political, but the war display is -- ridiculously -- not thought of as political.

    I read a wonderful article once about academic freedom, how professors can enjoy that so-called freedom as long as they don't voice certain opinions, among them "questioning the naturalness of capitalism". 

    Trees and icebergs

    In seeking to make visible the constant presence of contemporary white supremacy and systemic racism, the course used these analogies: a tree, sometimes called "The Oppression Tree", and an iceberg.

    Here are some images of the Tree of Colonial Oppression and the Tree of Liberation, borrowed with gratitude Indigenous Solidarity Ottawa


    We can contrast the Tree of Oppression with a Tree of Liberation.

    Another handy visualization is the iceberg, which (obviously) implies that most of the forces that shape and direct our world are beneath the surface. 

    Here are two iceberg visualizations, one very simple and a pear-shaped iceberg that is more fleshed out. (These images seem to be passed around without attribution, so I apologize for not crediting someone's work.)




    I find both the tree and the iceberg very useful -- especially the tree. I believe that history is constantly affecting the present, so seeing colonialism, slavery, and capitalism named as constant root forces is satisfying. It feels right.

    The view from the leaves

    So how do these metaphors apply to our communities, our institutions, and our organizations? 

    Here is one tiny example of how institutions and organizations are influenced by these invisible forces, and thus perpetuate the structures of the dominant, white, European-derived culture. 

    A new service organization is being formed. In order to achieve official non-profit status so it can legally raise funds, hire staff, and operate, the organization must have a board of directors. 

    The interested parties conduct a search for suitable people to sit on the board. They claim they are reaching out to a broad and diverse group of people, and, in all likelihood, they truly believe they are. The people on their list of potential directors reflect a diversity of skin colours, perceived ethnicities, and genders. 

    But who is considered for boards? Who is in a position to serve? 

    Whose background is deemed "professional"?
    What formal education have they had that led to this professionalism?
    What familial and cultural background supported their early education, and put them on a track that would lead to this professionalism?
    Who has a comfortable retirement, so they can participate in this context without earning income?

    In other words, who has the privilege of fitting the profile of board material? 

    Thus the search for directors is superficially diverse, but it sees only a small subset of society. 

    In 2021, thanks to changes (forced by popular movements) over the past decades, that subset appears more diverse than it did in, say, 1941 or 1971. But the diversity is still very narrow. 

    Large segments of our society are precluded from this participation, almost from birth. Poverty, poor nutrition, substandard education, family violence and disintegration, foster care, incarceration, addiction, mental health -- often all of the above. The fact that a tiny percentage of people faced with this suite of barriers manages to overcome them changes nothing. 

    The privilege of time

    One long thread of discussion in this workshop looked at Indigenous ways of knowing, contrasted with the modes of the dominant (western, white supremacist) society. 

    Those not familiar with the term "Indigenous ways of knowing" might like to google and read about it. I had never heard the expression until I took the Indigenous Canada course online. (It's free! Open to all! Go for it!)

    Indigenous ways of knowing reflect an entirely different worldview than that of the dominant society. And while there are hundreds, thousands, of Indigenous cultures, most or all Indigenous societies have this in common. 

    I'm not at all qualified to teach this concept, but here are some graphics that speak to the general ideas.

    Kalantzis & Cope, Works & Days


    Full Circle: First Nations, Metis, Inuit Ways of Knowing
    Resource from OSSTF/FEESO; more sources found at link.


    Combining Two Ways of Knowing


    Combining Two Ways of Knowing

     

    Combining Two Ways of Knowing: more sources at link.

    In a world that didn't reflect colonial oppression, our interactions would be more relational and less transactional. We would make decisions more by consensus and less by top-down authority. To create change, we could try many different approaches, then come together to discuss the results and collectively decide how to more forward. 

    I have worked within structures like this, in grassroots activism. It is generally a slow process, which can lead to deep feelings of trust, solidarity, and friendship among members. Unity is forged from shared values and purpose. Leaders emerge naturally, and they serve more as coordinators than authority figures. 

    This model has its drawbacks, of course, but working within this framework can be a deeply satisfying experience. It is a framework that exists outside of official, established institutions.

    What is possible?

    In our work lives none of these things are possible. We have deadlines. We have limited funds and, above all, limited time.

    We must justify our time, and in order to continue receiving funding, we must demonstrate results in a manner defined by external sources. For most organizations, funding relies on statistics, and those statistics must be generated on a regular basis.

    All this is embedded into the organization. No matter how much good that organization seeks to do in the world, its processes and practices reflect a top-down approach. It is a tree that grows from colonial, capitalist, patriarchal roots.

    Where does that leave our prospects for creating change in our work?

    Many librarians and library administrators care deeply about reconciliation. We want to acknowledge the deep roots of colonialism and the many poisons that have grown from that tree. We want to welcome all people as equals. We want the community's needs and wishes to determine the direction our libraries take.

    But we cannot change roots. Roots are history, and history can never be changed. 

    We can pull back the veil to reveal levels of privilege. 

    We can seek and create opportunities to use our privilege for the greater good.

    We can shut up and step back. We can let others take the floor and we can listen to them when they speak.

    We can build relationships, creating opportunities for community input.

    If we are white, we will inevitably hear racism from people who look like us, and when we do, we can speak up.

    But. 

    We cannot change how a board of directors is chosen. 

    We cannot change top-down governance in the organizations that employ us. 

    We cannot change a system driven by statistics meant to justify the use of public funds.

    Thus this workshop left me feeling despair about the prospects of decolonizing our communities.

    3.06.2021

    five negatives and five positives of living in a remote region

    Everything in life is a trade-off. 

    Everything has pros and cons, advantages and pitfalls, clouds and silver linings. I honestly can't think of anything this rule doesn't apply to, including the Big Life Choices that are the most obvious and clear to us.

    This post has an additional disclaimer, more like a geographical quirk. 

    Aerial views really emphasize remoteness.

    Although we live in what most people would consider a small town -- population approximately 4,200 -- Port Hardy is actually a regional hub. The next-largest town clocks in at population 2,500. The other communities in the region have populations of less than 500, many in double-digits.

    Because it's a hub, Port Hardy has more services than many towns of its size -- primary healthcare, a hospital, a few restaurants, a café, a large supermarket that is open every day (and serves the entire region), more than one hardware store, two hair salons. There's an airport!

    But the northern end of Vancouver Island -- the "north island" -- is considered remote. Each small community is at least a 30-minute drive to any other. Many communities are accessible only by water or dirt roads. 

    Five negatives of living in a remote region

    1. There is a shortage of practitioners. If you're in a larger town, there may be one chiropractor, one dentist, one physiotherapist, one massage therapist. They are very busy! 

    In Port Hardy, we have primary health care and an emergency room. For appointments with specialists, we drive three hours each way. 

    2. There are very few restaurants. 

    Unless you know the area, regional maps can be misleading.
    Some places on this map are tiny, isolated communities.

    3. Gas and groceries are more expensive -- although not nearly as bad as advertised.

    4. Travel is expensive and time-consuming. 

    Although Port Hardy has an airport, commercial flights are only connectors to Vancouver; they are infrequent and expensive. Connecting to Vancouver by car and ferry is extremely time-consuming and also expensive. This means that travel, other than road trips, takes an additional day on either end and can easily cost an additional $500 per person.

    5. There is very little diversity. 

    For the most part, people in our area are either white, of European descent, or Indigenous. Non-indigenous brown people are so rare as to stand out. 

    Some things that could be negatives, but aren't:

    1. The dearth of shopping choices. I don't think I could have lived here pre-internet. For me, being able to have anything delivered makes this area livable. 

    2. Conservative politics, which one often finds in small towns. In our area, most jobs are union, and most people vote NDP. There are conservatives here -- and this area has had Conservative MPs in the past -- but a leftist viewpoint is not odd or marginalized.  

    3. There is "nothing to do". See below.

    Five good things about living in a remote region

    1. Affordable real estate if you earn a middle-class salary. 

    There is a serious housing crisis here -- a principal reason it's so difficult to attract practitioners to the area. But if you can find the right place for sale -- which may mean living in temporary housing while waiting for a house to go on the market -- the housing prices are insanely low, compared to large metropolitan areas.

    2. It is beautiful. Nature is everywhere -- mountains, water, forest, wildlife.

    3. It is quiet

    The quiet is not just aural; it is visually quiet. One of the things that constantly irritated me living in suburban sprawl (in the Toronto area) was visual pollution -- being surrounded by crushes of parking lots, fast-food restaurants, advertising, logos, strip malls. Everything just looked so ugly and noisy. 

    4. It is slow. No one is in a rush. 

    5. There's nothing to do. 

    Of course there is plenty to do outdoors! But having spent my adult life in areas where there were seemingly limitless cultural options, I always felt a certain amount of pressure to partake in some portion of them. Having nothing to do is heavenly. I enjoy my cozy pastimes with zero guilt or pressure.  

    * * * *

    I loved living in New York City, despite the challenges. I always felt that NYC's challenges made its strengths possible. 

    I love living in Port Hardy in much the same way. The challenges enable the strengths. If the area was more accessible, it wouldn't be so peaceful and undeveloped. 

    2.28.2021

    what i'm reading: janis, her life and music

    As a teenager and in my early 20s, I was somewhat obsessed with Janis Joplin. I read all the available biographies of her, and took any opportunity to see footage of her legendary performances.

    I never lost my fascination; I've continued to love Janis' music throughout my life. Reading Janis: Her Life and Music by Holly George-Warren deepened my appreciation of Janis' intelligence and artistry. The book also shifted my adult view of Janis, from a misunderstood, tragic figure, to a joyful, life-affirming woman intent on living life on her own terms.

    George-Warren was the first Janis biographer to have full access to all her diaries, journals, and letters, and truly, the first to care about facts. I didn't realize that Myra Friedman, author of the famous Janis biography Buried Alive (which I read and re-read) was in fact a publicist for Janis' record label. Turns out the book was mostly myth and rumour.

    * * * *

    Of course it is tragic that Janis died at only 27 years of age, by an accidental heroin overdose. She had been working hard to get clean, then relapsed, unknowingly injecting heroin that was 40 or 50% pure, rather than the 10% that was typical. An early death is a terrible thing, and when an artist has only begun to scratch the surface of her talents, it's also a tragic loss for music and culture. But Janis' life was anything but sad or tragic, and George-Warren's book reminded me of that. Janis' had her challenges, but her story is joyous and triumphant.

    Without a doubt, Janis was insecure and had a profound need for attention. She went through some very severe bouts of depression, and was prone to fear and anxiety. She didn't love herself as she should have. With her personal evolution cut short at age 27, she had little time to do the hard work of adult self-acceptance.

    Janis clearly sought to numb her pain with alcohol and drugs. With her addictive personality, this was a lethal combination. She was first addicted to shooting speed (what is now called crystal meth), later to heroin, and always, from start to finish, to alcohol.

    * * * *

    Janis was very intelligent, loved to read, and never traveled without a big stack of books. She was a self-taught music scholar. In her youngest musical days, she discovered the blues, listening to and teaching herself all the old blues forms. Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, became her first musical idol, and she taught herself to emulate this great artist who died six years before she was born.

    Later, after seeing Otis Redding perform in San Francisco, Janis saw her own potential in his style, and sought to emulate him -- as Robert Plant and other singers would later do with her.

    Janis was always keenly aware of her musical influences, always seeking to honour rather than co-opt them. When adapting signature songs by Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Etta James, Janis asked permission, and always acknowledged the originators onstage. She always cared deeply that she was standing on big musical shoulders.

    * * * *

    Here's something I never knew: the main reason Janis was hated and ostracized in her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, wasn't her original clothing or her wild hair or her singing. She was many years away from developing her signature style. It was all racism: Janis was hated because she was friends with Black people.

    Janis frequented segregated bars on both sides of the divide, seeking music to hear, learn, and perform. She didn't hide the fact that she had Black friends; she regarded the racist norms as stupid and small-minded, and she wasn't shy about saying so. There may have been others in the small Texas town that opposed segregation, but no one else was open about it.

    In Buried Alive, Friedman hints at Janis' pan-sexuality, and her relationships with women. I don't know if Friedman thought she was protecting Janis' reputation, but George-Warren finds a woman who was openly bisexual, who had both fleeting and serious relationships with both men and women.

    Other writers have seen tragedy and dysfunction in Janis' very active sex life, but I see a woman with exuberant appetites, who lived by her own rules. Janis was very serious about her music, and she was also serious about enjoying life. She worked hard and she played hard.

    Janis' overactive sex life is served up as evidence of a troubled, lonely soul. Did anyone say that about Mick Jagger (or Leonard Cohen, for that matter)? This is just the old double-standard, the same one that Joni Mitchell was subjected to, the one that all women are subject to, especially those who live and love independently. Janis did want someone to love, and she had serious, loving relationships with both men and women, but she also wanted to fuck around as much as she wanted. This wasn't sad! It was joyful and life-affirming. Janis was so alive to life and to possibilities. She loved intensely -- she loved sex -- and she loved being wild and free.

    Janis also loved trying new things musically. When her talent outgrew her first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, everyone around her urged Janis to dump them and move on. But the members of that band were more than friends, they were a family. Breaking with them meant losing love; it meant choosing her art over love. It was necessary, but it was very painful.

    Janis craved attention, craved the spotlight, whether on a tiny stage in a coffee house or in an arena; the more attention, the better. And of course that is also a drug. With fame comes fans' expectations, while an artist still wants to grow and change musically. The attention quickly becomes a prison, choking the life out of creativity. Janis: Her Life and Music is excellent at showing how popular success becomes a death sentence for music.

    * * * *

    This book is also full of wonderful insider stories of other musicians' and artists' encounters with Janis, and great quotes from critics discovering her incredible talent for the first time. Here are a few small samples.

    From one of her band members on her interpretation of the Gershwin classic "Summertime":

    It was as if molten lead had been poured into the rather conventional form of the song. Her voice was so high in emotional content that it split into two lines, one modal line accompanying the other at an exotic distance we felt rather than heard.

    From the infamous Ralph Gleason, who booked Janis and Big Brother at the famous Monterey Jazz Festival.

    There she was, this freaky-looking white kid from Texas onstage with all the hierarchy of the traditional blues world, facing an audience that was steeped in blues tradition, which was older than her ordinary audience and which had a built-in tendency to regard electric music as the enemy. The first thing she did was to say, 'shit', and that endeared her right away. Then she stomped her foot and shook her hair and started to scream. They held still for a couple of seconds, but here and there in the great sunlit arena, longhairs started getting up and out into the aisles and stomping along with the band. By the end of the first number, the arena was packed with people writhing and twisting and snaking along. It was an incredible sight. Nothing like it had ever happened before in the festival's ten years. It was Janis's day, no doubt about it. Old and young, long hair or short, black or white, they reacted like somebody had stuck a hot wire in their ass.

    From Robert Shelton, New York Times critic "whose 1961 review of a Bob Dylan gig led to Dylan's recording contract with Columbia".

    As fine as the whole evening was, it belonged mostly to sparky, spunky Miss Joplin. There are few voices of such power, flexibility and virtuosity in pop music anywhere. Occasionally Miss Joplin appeared to be hitting two harmonizing notes at once. Her voice shouted with ecstasy or anger one minute, trailed off into coquettish curlicues the next. It glided from soprano highs to chesty alto lows. . . . In an unaccompanied section of "Love Is Like a Ball and Chain," Miss Joplin went on a flight that alternately suggested a violin cadenza and the climax of a flamenco session. In "Light Is Faster Than Sound" and "Down on Me," she unleashed more energy than most singers bring to a whole program.

    For Janis fans, this book is a gift.

    For anyone who enjoys reading about the roots of rock of the 1950s and 60s, the music of the 1960s, and the San Francisco scene of that era, this is a must-read.

    For those who only know the Janis Joplin of her one radio hit (albeit an incredible song), do some Googling and some listening. Then read this book.

    2.21.2021

    very sad news: boomer cannot stay

    My heart is heavy. My heart is broken.

    Boomer cannot stay with us.

    We can't even foster him while we search for his forever home.

    One of our dogs is extremely stressed by Boomer's presence. It's causing some behaviours that are intolerable and potentially dangerous, and will only worsen over time.

    From information from the vet, a behaviourist, and several people with multi-dog households, I've learned that this is not uncommon when a third dog is introduced to an existing pair, especially a male coming into a established female pack.

    We must put the safety and well-being of Kai and Cookie first. Add this to the list of things I thought I'd never do: tomorrow morning we will take Boomer to the local shelter and surrender him. I can only hope that we have set him on a path to a warm, safe, loving home.

    And we hope we can reverse and repair the problems Kai and Cookie are experiencing.

    Boomer's a lovely dog -- sweet and docile, a fast learner, happy and easy-going. I hope he can stay that way until he finds his people.

    2.11.2021

    in which the "no third dog rule" is happily thrown away: introducing boomer!


    This handsome boy is Boomer, the newest addition to our family. I saw him a couple of times outside the library, scrounging food. He was quiet and meek, friendly but very cautious. A library regular -- the person who used to have Cookie -- told me folks have been calling him Boomer. Allan and I couldn't agree on a different name, so Boomer he is.

    He's less than a year old. I'm guestimating seven to nine months; we'll know more after his first visit to the vet in a few days. It's likely that he had never been in a car or a house before today.

    I checked around to make sure he was not anyone else's dog, and broached the idea at home. We've always had a strict "no third dog" rule! If one of us was melting over a pup, the other one had to be strong. (We did briefly have Diego, Kai, and Cookie, but Diego was old; we knew that was temporary.) But, as I reminded Allan, we were renters then. Finding rentals with two dogs was difficult enough. We knew we could never have three!

    But now we own our own home. We have the space, and we have the means... so why not?


    It's been very cold lately, and I couldn't get Boomer out of mind, knowing he was sleeping outside so nearby. This morning we drove down to the reserve, and we saw him right away, playing with another dog. We brought some food and fed bits to both of them. 

    A woman came out of her house, wanting to know what we were doing. The second dog was hers, and she was concerned. There is often suspicion between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people here, until introductions are made and intentions are established. (Very understandable!) 

    I told her we were a friend of [Cookie's former person], and this dog had been in town, and we are hoping to take it in. She said again that one dog was hers, and brought it inside, and said she doesn't know the other dog (Boomer), but she has seen him on his own many times. She and her partner both wished us luck and we all exchanged friendly goodbyes.

    With the other dog gone, we continued feeding Boomer bits of sardines, petting him, and calling him by name. He was shy and cautious, moving away when we tried to put a collar on him, and not wanting to put a paw in the car, even to retrieve food.

    Allan had the brilliant idea to try walking him on the leash -- and lo and behold, Boomer really seemed to like that! Allan and Boomer walked down the street, and I drove slowly beside them -- and that made all the difference. Allan took Boomer in the back seat, and we drove home!

    We took Boomer in the backyard, and Kai and Cookie came barrelling out, full tilt. Naturally Boomer ran for the hills -- just as Cookie did when she first met Diego and Kai. But in a few moments, they were sniffing each other, then came the play bows, and within 30 seconds of meeting, they were all playing together. Cookie seemed overjoyed, repeatedly leaping up on me and Allan, which is very unusual.
    They ran and played for a while, then we took Boomer -- who was quite fragrant -- for a bath at the nearby dog wash. (It's so weird, what this town has and doesn't have!) Allan walked there with Mister Boomer on the leash, and I drove over. Boomer was pretty freaked out about the bath, but he accepted it, then we drove home with man and dog together in the back seat.

    I can already see that Allan is Boomer's special guy. In my experience, dogs develop a very deep bond with the first person in on the rescue. That was the case with me and Buster, to an extreme degree, since he was near death on the street when I found him, and it is certainly the case with me and Cookie. I can see Boomer is already a bit more attached to Allan than to me.

    2.07.2021

    listening to joni: #17 and final: shine

    Shine, 2007

    Shine is Joni's most recent, and likely final, studio album. She came out of retirement in 2007 to release the album, nine years after her previous Taming the Tiger.

    Shine, which was also re-issued on vinyl in 2020, is a themed collection: the lyrics focus on environmental destruction and endless war. Joni composed some of the tracks for The Fiddle and the Drum, a collaboration with the Alberta Ballet Company, for which Joni served as artistic director.
     
    At the time of the album's release, most critics interpreted the lyrics as references to Hurricane Katrina and the US's invasion of Iraq. Today, not tethered to specific recent events, the songs ache with heartbreak, frustration, and anger at how we humans have destroyed our planet. 
     
    The album opens with an instrumental, "One Week Last Summer". When I first heard it, I thought it was a bit "Joni by the numbers," that Joni was musically repeating herself or relying too much on old patterns. But the more I've listened, the more the song has revealed itself to me. It's gentle but very powerful. It welcomes you, enfolds you, ushers you into the feel and tone of what follows. You can hear some Court and Spark in it, and some Blue, and some distinctly Joni arranging. She's not quoting herself so much as being herself.
     
    In the lyrics booklet, Joni explains the song's title and the importance of that week, in which she experienced an inner peace and contentment, and a musical re-awakening.
    I stepped outside of my little house and stood barefoot on a rock. The pacific ocean rolled towards me. Across the bay, a family of seals sprawled on the kelp uncovered by the low tide. A blue heron honked overhead. All around the house the wild roses were blooming. The air smelled sweet and salty and loud with crows and bees. My house was clean. I had food in the fridge for a week. I sat outside 'til the sun went down.

    That night the piano beckoned for the first time in ten years. My fingers found these patterns which express what words could not. This song poured out while a brown bear rummaged through my garbage cans.

    The song has seven verses constructed for the days of that happy week. On Thursday the bear arrives.

    I love this statement, and I'm grateful that Joni included it. I can easily relate -- and I hope you can, too -- to the simple feeling of contentment, and how that freed her mind and her creative impulses. I also love that she ended the statement with some classic Joni humour.

    The lyrics on Shine sometimes sound a little clunky and prosaic, as often happens with topical songs. But I have to add that they are a bit clunky for Joni. Even Joni's most strained lyrics are above-average. The songs mourn the paradise that's been paved into a parking lot, despair at what remains, and yearn, wish, and hope for "the genius to save this place," (from "This Place"), hoping when you have no hope: "if I had a heart, I'd cry" (from "If I Had a Heart").

    "Strong and Wrong" is the most powerful and direct anti-war song Joni has ever written. Unlike many familiar anti-war songs, this is neither anthem nor folk song. It's a slow jazz meditation, the beautiful, rich piano chords accented by quiet drum and pedal steel. A lyric references another powerful anti-war song from another era: "Where have all the songbirds gone? Gone!" and then turn to a Joni reference: All I hear are crows in flight, Singing might is right, Might is Right! At the time this was thought to be about the US invasion of Iraq, and although those events may have inspired the song, it applies to all wars at all times, and to humankind's apparent inability to stop making war.

    War -- its futility, its waste, its madness -- was certainly on Joni's mind. The title of the Ballet, The Fiddle and the Drum, is also one of Joni's earliest songs, which she famously sang on the Dick Cavett show, immediately following Woodstock. (You can see it here.)

    My two favourite songs on Shine are the title track and "If," an adaptation of the famous Rudyard Kipling poem, with added verses. 

    "Shine" (the song) is a litany of horrors, some global, some more specific.

    Shine on the fishermen
    With nothing in their nets
    Shine on rising oceans and evaporating seas
    . . . .
    Shine on the Catholic Church
    And the prison that it owns
    . . . .
    Shine on lousy leadership
    Licensed to kill
    Shine on dying soldiers
    In patriotic pain
    Shine on mass destruction
    In some God's name!

    But although the list of horrors is long, Joni implores us: shine. I hear this as having many meanings. 

    Shine a light to expose evil. 

    Let your inner light shine. 

    A reference to the gospel classic, "This Little Light of Mine," in heavy use during the US civil rights movement.

    "Earthshine," captured in the most famous environmental photo of all time, "Earthrise". 

    As Joni sings "shine on... shine on," I also hear echoes of the Pink Floyd classic, "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" -- now referring to each of us, and to all of humanity.

    The lyrics of "If" are straight out of the Kipling poem, with some masterful tweaks and a few new lines inserted. Comparing the poem and the song line by line, I was surprised that some lyrics I assumed were Joni's were actually from the poem. Of course Joni has removed the sexist and macho ending, and instead sings to perhaps her daughter, her grandson, or to us.

    You'll be alright
    You'll be alright.
    Cause you've got the fight
    You've got the insight.
    I stumbled on "If" as a teenager and copied the words into my quote book. Even before knowing that Kipling was a racist colonialist, I hated the ending: I used a different colour pen and shaded over those last two lines. But the poem itself is powerful, and shouldn't be forgotten because the poet also wrote -- and is associated with -- a lot of offensive, racist work.

    Shine also includes a remix of one of Joni's most famous songs, "Big Yellow Taxi (2007)". Its inclusion highlights how humanity has utterly failed since that song's debut. It serves as a barometer of our destruction. Paving paradise for a parking lot now seems a quaint notion, with more species on the brink of extinction and the very survival of the planet in question.

    Throughout, Joni's voice sounds tired, strained, breathy. Her range is more limited, nowhere near the power and range she could harness in her earlier music. Of course that's to be expected in any older artist, especially a lifelong smoker, but it's still a bit sad when that vocal instrument was once so masterful.

    Hear Music label
     
    Shine was released by Hear Music, a label owned by Starbucks. Its music was featured on Starbucks' in-store playlist, and the CD was available for sale in Starbucks cafes. 
     
    Many critics disapproved of this, some quite harshly. I don't get that. It's not as if the lyrics plug the coffee chain or the CD cover is emblazoned with the company logo. Working with Hear Music was an opportunity to reach a demographic that knows Joni's work -- and even more importantly -- still buys CDs. She clearly retained all creative control; do we dream this woman would ever do otherwise? 
     
    I see this as a smart marketing decision. Joni's usual label, The Warner Group, is owned by WarnerMedia, a multinational entertainment behemoth. What's the difference?

    The album cover

    The album cover package is a simple and austere white font on black background, with striking images from the ballet.

    Joni designed the cover and package, but for the first time, she neither painted a self-portrait for the album nor used her own paintings in the cover. Of course, she collaborated with a choreographer and dancers on the dance itself.



    In her own words

    In this interview from 2007, Joni talks about the tremendous creativity that she was able to express, as musician, artistic director, and visual artist through the Shine project. She says that Starbucks was "instrumental in this album being born at all", and also specifically mentions the Kipling poem, and the dancers' reaction to it.

    She also confirms my impression from the lyrics: "Rationally I have no hope, irrationally I believe in miracles."

    It's seven minutes long and worth a watch.

    Other musicians on this album
     
    Most of Shine is Joni working alone, playing multiple instruments and doing all the vocal tracks. However, a few other musicians did contribute.
    Alto Sax, Bob Sheppard
    Pedal Steel, Greg Leisz
    Soprano Sax, Bob Sheppard
    Drums, Brian Blade
    Bass, Larry Klein
    Percussion, Paulinho Da Costa
    Acoustic Guitar, James Taylor 
     
    Final "listening to joni" post

    With this post, I have completed the "listening to joni" project on wmtc. 

    Re-listening to Joni's music in chronological order brought me new musical insights, and re-connected me with my deep and abiding love of her music. It was sometimes a very emotional experience, both for personal memories and feelings I associate with the music, and the profound meaning I invest in many songs. 

    This was also a very challenging writing experience, as I struggled to describe what I heard and offer some analysis. I'm not indulging in false modesty when I say I really never succeeded to my satisfaction. But that matters little. Writing this series was a great experience, because it brought me closer to the heart of the genius that is Joni Mitchell. 

    I'm grateful to Les Irvin for including these posts in the JoniMitchell.com library, and proud to see my words incorporated there.

    1.24.2021

    what i'm reading: the bridge by bill konigsberg -- important, powerful, essential teen fiction

    The Bridge, by Bill Konigsberg, is the best YA novel I've read since Eleanor & Park in 2012.

    Unfortunately, I know that many readers won't go near this book, because of its subject matter: teen suicide. This would be a terrible missed opportunity. It's a great book that both teens and adults -- especially adults who have contact with teenagers -- should read. Yes, it's sad, but it's also hopeful, and it's powerful, and it's necessary.

    Konigsberg, author of several excellent YA books, approaches the subject with a brilliant twist that makes the whole book work. Two teenagers stand on New York City's George Washington Bridge, feeling suicidal. They don't know each other; their presence on the bridge at the same moment is a coincidence, a quirk of fate, if you will.

    The story unfolds four times. She jumps, he doesn't. He jumps, she doesn't. They both jump. Neither jumps. Each timeline explores the ripple effect of each choice.

    Through this device, Konigsberg avoids many pitfalls that other books about teenage suicide have suffered from, accused of either glorifying suicide, or over-simplifying it, or blaming others, or making it situational, without examining mental health.

    This is also just a really good book. The writing is brilliant, the characters are fully realized -- including the adults, which is rare for this genre. The sadness is leavened with humour and with hope. The story takes place in New York City, in a privileged world which, in reality, is not an easy world for children.

    The book is also notable for what it's not. It's not glib or facile. There are no quick fixes. But there are pathways that may lead to better mental health. There are options.

    I find it sad and frustrating that so many people will not read The Bridge. They'll say: "It's too sad." "I don't want to think about that." "I read for enjoyment, and that's not an enjoyable topic."

    I've heard this about many books that explore painful and upsetting themes. It's a shame, because a book like The Bridge is an opportunity to understand others more deeply, to see people and their choices in a more nuanced way, even to think about how we can try to help.

    I probably should have more empathy for people's reading choices, but... I don't. If you read this book, will parts be sad and painful? Obviously, yes. Will you cry? Probably. And what of it? You'll feel something. You won't melt. You won't break.

    Millions of lives have been touched by suicide. Mine has been; yours probably has been, too. The ripple effect explored in The Bridge is happening all the time. For me, a book like this is a way to understand this better, perhaps to bear witness, from a respectful distance.

    For some people, the topic of the book will be too close. It reflects their own reality, and they may not be in a place where they can absorb the story. I get that. But to people who insist that every read be sunny and cheerful, perhaps try moving outside your comfort zone. It's worth it.

    * * * *

    Reading The Bridge made me remember -- many times -- one of my favourite monologues from the series "The Blacklist", spoken (of course) by the character Raymond Reddington (James Spader).

    Have you ever seen the aftermath of a suicide bombing? I have. June 29th, 2003. I was meeting two associates at the Marauch restaurant in Tel Aviv. As my car was pulling up, a 20 year-old Palestinian named Ghazi Safar detonated a vest wired with C4.

    The shock wave knocked me flat, blew out my eardrums. The smoke…it was like being underwater. I went inside. A nightmare. Blood, parts of people. You could tell where Safar was standing when the vest blew. It was like a perfect circle of death. There was almost nothing left of the people closest to him. 17 dead, 45 injured. Blown to pieces. The closer they were to the bomber, the more horrific the effect.

    That's every suicide.

    Every single one.

    An act of terror perpetrated against everyone who's ever known you. Everyone who's ever loved you. The people closest to you are the ones who suffer the most pain, the most damage. Why would you do that? Why would you do that to the people who love you?

    1.19.2021

    what i'm reading: ghosts of gold mountain, the epic story of the chinese who built the transcontinental railroad

    Ever since reading, in 2006, The National Dream and The Golden Spike, Pierre Berton's books about the building of the Canadian railroad, I've been interested in the Chinese railroad workers. Two details stuck in my memory: Chinese workers retaining their food traditions (and the racism and abuse they encountered over this) and that they went on strike. I was excited to know that these underpaid, undervalued, and abused workers organized themselves to fight back.

    So when I saw a very positive review of The Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, I immediately requested it from my library. Gordon Chang, one of the preeminent historians of the Chinese experience in North America, writes from an American context, but the story applies to Canada and other countries, as Chinese labour built railroads all over the world.

    Outsized labour under outsized conditions

    To say that the Railroad Chinese (as they are called) toiled under difficult conditions would be a monumental understatement. Whatever one can say about those conditions, no matter how hyperbolic it might sound -- it was worse. 

    Avalanches, snowslides, mudslides, blizzards, extreme cold, extreme heat. Smoke, fumes, choking dust, unrelenting sun. Explosions, cave-ins, falling trees. All manner of hazards, often at the same time. The men laboured by hand, with picks, shovels, gun powder, and worst of all, nitroglycerine, without the benefit of any steam-powered tools or safety equipment. 

    Food, water, tents, and any other needs were hauled on sleds and by pack animals, and the costs were deducted from their pay. 

    (Here's a note about gun powder, then called "black powder," that I enjoyed.

    Many of the Railroad Chinese, however, were probably familiar with black powder, which their ancestors had invented in the 9th Century and was commonly used in fireworks, guns, and cannons back in their home region of China.)

    Besides the complete absence of safety regulations and safety equipment, there was a total lack of concern for, and interest in, the workers' lives on the part of their employer. Both the Central Pacific Railroad Company (CPRR) in the west and the Union Pacific in the east earned coveted government funds based on how many miles of track they laid, with large incentive bonuses for the company that laid more track. And because everyone grossly underestimated the time and phenomenal effort needed to build the western leg of the railroad, the pressure to work quickly was enormous. 

    Why Chinese labour?

    Naturally Chinese workers were paid less than white workers -- but that isn't why the western part of the transcontinental railroad was built almost exclusively by Chinese workers. 

    White Americans didn't want these jobs. When a call for labour went out, a few hundred white men might show up, but at the first rumour of a gold strike, they'd be gone. Using Chinese workers was suggested, but the CPRR was reluctant, purely for racist reasons. They considered bringing in large numbers of Mexican workers. They recruited some "freedmen" -- Black people who had recently been enslaved. They even considered using former Confederate soldiers who were still in prison. Finally, they turned to China, and the experiment paid off, beyond anything company leadership could have imagined.

    Besides lower wages, using Chinese labour had other advantages for the company. Bringing equipment and labour from the eastern US meant a long, slow, dangerous journey by boat, down the east coast, around the tip of South America, and up the west coast. It was actually easier and cheaper to bring workers to California from China. 

    Chinese men were recruited by the thousands and tens of thousands. They weren't typical immigrants: they didn't necessarily come from extreme poverty, nor were they escaping war or persecution. This was an opportunity to earn more money than they could at home, so they answered the call. They came alone -- sometimes with people from their region, or with male relatives, but never with wives and families.

    They were also the best railroad workers the company had ever seen. Using many techniques they imported from China -- such as building monumental retaining walls without the use of mortar -- the Railroad Chinese worked harder, faster, and more efficiently than their white counterparts anywhere. Even the most hardcore racist CPRR men came to admire both their work ethic and the results of their labours.

    But you can't eat admiration or send it home to your family.

    The strike

    Chinese workers weren't only paid less than their white counterparts. They also had no opportunity to advance into higher-paying positions, no matter what their skills or experience. They lived outside or in tents that they procured and paid for, while their white supervisors lived in converted train cars, with kitchens, beds, and other comforts. Their jobs were the most dangerous by far on the project, so they assumed the greatest risk, were paid the least, and endured the worst working conditions.

    Unfortunately, despite all this, the Chinese workers earned significantly more than they could in their home province. So they persevered. But not passively.

    On June 24, at the height of the construction season, precisely when the company most hoped to make rapid progress, 3,000 Railroad Chinese, in a fully coordinated and informed effort, put down their tools and refused to work. From Cisco to Truckee, almost thirty miles, Chinese at scores of sites and in hundreds of teams stopped working in unison. One news report called it "the greatest strike ever known in the country."

    In this bold act of resistance, the strikers may have been inspired by a smaller labor stoppage by fellow Chinese railroad workers in California nearly a decade prior. It was said that in 1859, an unscrupulous Chinese contractor withheld the wages due 150 Chinese who were working on a rail line near Sacramento before the CPRR. They rebelled, attacked the contractor's assistant, and threatened him with violence. The frightened clerk took refuge in the station house and was saved only by the arrival of the local authorities. Through the years, Chinese workers, long after the incident had passed, likely told and retold this story of strength through collective action.

    After eight days without work, the workers' food supplies had dwindled, and the CPRR wasn't allowing their suppliers through. Most -- but not all -- workers returned to work. Chang writes:

    Though the company did not concede to the strikers' demands, it would be a mistake to conclude, as most historical accounts do, that the Chinese "lost". The workers, in a well-coordinated effort involving thousands, spread over miles of the train line, had defied the company, and it is clear from internal records that the Chinese collective action had deeply shaken the principals. They had also gotten bad press. The company leadership would not forget the confrontation and realized that the workers could never be taken for granted. What is more, it appears that the company also quietly improved pay following the strike, at least for skilled and experienced Chinese workers, over the subsequent months. Wages for them went above $35 a month. Three years earlier, when Chinese first began working on the CPRR, their pay had been $26 a month. For some, it jumped 50 percent higher. . . . 

    . . . The strike might be understood as being as much, or even more, a clash of cultural logics rather than an incident seen in standard Western labor-management terms. Collective action could be seen as an important expression of will, a matter of achieving "face" and self-respect. The specific outcome was less significant that the act of defiance itself. . . . The self-discipline and organization of the striking Chinese did in fact favorably impress the railroad leadership.

    Their wages did increase. And after this, strikes and stoppages by Chinese railroad workers took place on many lines and construction projects in California. That's winning.

    What might have been

    There was a moment in time when things looked hopeful for Chinese immigrants in their new country. 

    There was great curiosity among the public about the Chinese workers, and the press reported on it often. The overwhelming majority of these stories were very positive -- writers hailed the workers' skills, their bravery, and their incredible work ethic. Of course most of the reporting was laced with bigoted language and stereotypes, as was the custom of the times, but the public formed a very favourable impression of the Chinese work force. There was a growing movement for changing laws so that Chinese people could become American citizens. 

    It looked hopeful... until it didn't. Economic downturn and xenophobia led to scapegoating, expulsion, and horrific violence, including lynchings and the burning of Chinese-owned businesses.

    This pattern echoes so much American history. There were hopeful moments when the Pilgrims landed. There were hopeful moments after the Civil War, especially in multicultural metropolises such as New Orleans and New York. But the forces of bigotry and hatred were organized, violent, and usually had the weight of government behind them.

    Outsized research, too

    Gordon Chang and his team of researchers at the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, out of Stanford University (where he is a humanities and history professor) have uncovered an astonishing amount of material, despite the daunting challenge of having no first-hand accounts from workers themselves. Tens of thousands of letters were exchanged between railroad workers and their families in China, but not a single letter or diary has survived, or at least none have been found.

    Despite this, the Stanford researchers have uncovered a trove of material from a huge array of sources. Chang uses what is known, plus his informed imagination, to create a vibrant tale of struggle and triumph.

    The stories of the Railroad Chinese have been forgotten, omitted, and expunged from American history. This book goes a long way towards changing that.

    1.11.2021

    fact: you cannot wave the confederate flag or the swastika flag and rightly call yourself a patriotic american

    This post has been half-written and sitting in drafts for many months. Days after an armed mob tried to violently subvert the results of an election seems like a good time to finish it.

    * * * *

    Here's a statement that should be completely obvious.

    You cannot wave the Confederate flag or the Nazi flag and also be a patriotic American.

    History Lesson #1

    In 1861, a group of terrorists attacked the United States. This was an act of war, by a group who would soon be known as the Confederate Army. 

    Representing a self-declared country, the Confederate Army fought against the United States in a prolonged act of treason that lasted four years. 620,000 people died in this conflict, at a time when the population of the country (excluding Indigenous people) was about 31 million.

    Until 58,000 Americans lost their lives in the Vietnam War, more Americans were killed in the Civil War than in all foreign wars combined.

    Thus someone who waves the Confederate flag aligns themselves with treason and with enemies of the United States.

    History Lesson #2

    From September 1939 until May 1945, the United States was engaged in World War II, often said to be a righteous and "good" war. Along with the Allied nations, the United States fought the Third Reich, also called Nazi Germany. More than 400,000 Americans died in the "European theatre".

    I include only American deaths here, as I assume the people who carry Nazi flags are not concerned with the deaths of British, French, German, Italian, Polish, or other people, be they civilians or soldiers.

    The Nazi flag was the symbol of an enemy -- a fascist government, an occupying power, and a creator of one of the most horrific genocides in world history. Waving this flag can be construed an act of treason or sedition.

    A note about "enemies"

    As a person who opposes war in almost all scenarios, I hesitate to use the expression "the enemy". Working-class and poor people were killed, maimed, and suffered devastating losses during these two wars, whether they were from Alabama, Pennsylvania, or Bavaria. Elite Nazis were allowed to retire in comfort in South America, while Nazi scientists were recruited by the US government and lived out their lives under assumed identities. The real enemy is war itself, and the ruling class that profits by it.  

    But these flags were symbols of governments. Although ordinary people may have adopted the flags and the propaganda that went with them, the flags themselves were symbols of governments and philosophies. Both the Confederacy and the Nazis were the enemies of the United States. They were also the enemies of the stated values and vision of the United States. 

    Yet some percentage of Americans carry these flags and claim to be patriots. 

    Although these people have become much more visible in the last five years, their movements are not new, nor are their beliefs.

    Do the white nationalists who wave those flags understand this? I'm quite sure movement leaders do. But the rank-and-file militia members, the yobs who were incited by Donald Trump, are not known for their intelligence or their grasp of current events or world history. They live in an alternate version of reality, where Barack Obama was not born in the United States, Hillary Clinton runs a pedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant, Joe Biden is a Communist, and Trump won the recent election in a landslide, among other fantasies.

    We know that, to these people, the Nazi and Confederate flags symbolize white nationalism, white supremacy, bigotry, and hatred. This is what drove our abject horror and revulsion at a POTUS declaring "very fine people on both sides" after the violent demonstration in Charlottesville in 2017.

    But these flags are also symbols of an imagined past, where women were submissive and servile, Black people were (at best) kept segregated, LGBT people did not exist, and the white "workingman" got a fair deal and had a better life. Immigration was limited to their own ancestors, who (they believe) came to North America legally, spoke English, and quickly assimilated. (PS: not only is that not true, many of their ancestors weren't even considered white at the time!)

    So while these flags have come to symbolize extreme racism and a kind of generic hatred for the modern world, we should never forget their original meanings. 

    You cannot wave the Confederate flag or the Nazi flag and also be a patriot.

    1.09.2021

    a reading plan for 2021: big stacks of nonfiction, plus some fiction, and series for mind breaks

    2018: Titles and reading projects that were languishing on my List.

    2019: The year of the biography. The first time I created a reading plan for the year.

    2020: I liked having the 2019 plan, and created a new plan for 2020.

    In each case, I read many titles from the plan, and many off-plan -- enough that I feel I've accomplished part of a goal, but not so much that the goal became a chore. 

    For 2021, I consulted The List, and selected sub-lists of nonfiction, fiction, and YA. Add to that the authors I want to read or read more of (from the 2018 list), plus the long-term goals that may or may not advance. 

    Recently I made a brilliant discovery: I enjoy reading on the treadmill! I use a treadmill for exercise in bad weather or if for some other reason I don't want to outside. In the past I've always listened to music while walking to nowhere. A few weeks ago I tried reading, just as an experiment, and found that I love it. This new habit has made it possible to increase time spent on two of my life goals at the same time. Amazing!

    Nonfiction

    Ghosts of Gold Mountain: the Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, Gordon Chang (reading now)

    Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy, Leslie Brody (A surprise gift from Allan.)

    The Sword and the Shield: the Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Peniel E. Joseph

    Janis: Her Life and Her Music, Holly George-Warren (I read biographies of Janis Joplin as a teenager; this new book sounds fantastic.)

    Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, Stephen Kinzer (Ever since reading Kinzer's Overthrow, I am interested in almost anything he writes.)

    A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott

    Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck, William Souder

    Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit (Working my way through these amazing essays.) 

    The Skin We're In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, Desmond Cole

    The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, David Treuer

    The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells

    Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport

    Fiction 

    Charlie Savage, Roddy Doyle (One I've missed by a favourite author.)

    Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (Author I've been meaning to read; first of a trilogy.)

    The Cold Millions: A Novel, Jess Walter

    There There, Tommy Orange

    The Resisters, Gish Jen

    True Story: A Novel, Kate Reed Perry

    Blacktop Wasteland: A Novel, S. A. Cosby

    Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo

    The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence (I will try again to read this Canadian classic.)

    YA

    The Bridge, Bill Konigsberg

    Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything, Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

    A List of Things That Will Not Change, Rebecca Stead

    Continuing to read more by:

    Frans de Waal

    Carl Safina

    Robert Sapolsky

    Giving my brain a break between nonfictions:

    Martin Beck, Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall

    Parker, Donald Westlake as Richard Stark

    Long-term goals

    Orwell still to read: three titles

    Dickens still to read: four titles

    Re-start weekly chapters of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 and Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919. (Project started in 2018 but abandoned later that year.)

    1.08.2021

    what i'm reading: never cry wolf by farley mowat

    I have read many essays and op-eds by Farley Mowat, the legendary Canadian naturalist, but until now, had never read any of his many books. (He was incredibly prolific.) When visiting Russell Books in September, I noticed a copy of Never Cry Wolf and picked it up. I'm so glad I did! It's a short, easy-to-read book that would appeal to any nature lover, not only wolf enthusiasts like me.

    Never Cry Wolf: The Amazing True Story of Life Among Arctic Wolves, first published in 1963, chronicles three seasons that Mowat spent observing wolves in the Keewatin Barrens, an area north of Manitoba, in the Northwest Territories. Farley was originally working for the government, sent to study how to control the wolf population that was supposedly laying waste to caribou herds. Armed with faulty equipment and faulty assumptions, Mowat discovered that everything the government -- and all of society -- believed about wolves was false. 

    Mowat camped in very close proximity to wolf families and was able to observe them in almost all aspects of their daily lives. His descriptions of the wolves are incredibly vivid, some of the finest nature writing I've ever had the pleasure of reading. 

    Mowat's writing, in fact, transcends nature writing or any other genre. The first part of the book is a send-up of government bureaucracy, and of academic researchers. It's decidedly over-the-top and very amusing.

    Next, once in the wilderness, Mowat writes with awe and wonder for his lupine subjects, and with simple respect for the few humans he encounters. This is the heart of the book. It's a fast and very engaging read.

    Then, in a brief third section, Mowat forcefully and eloquently argues against humans' extermination of wolves, and calls on us to heed the facts and change our ways. I'm tempted to share a story from this third section, but it's very disturbing, and perhaps best left to discover on your own.

    * * * *

    I won't go into any detail about what Mowat discovered and the myths he shattered. Suffice to say that there are very few wolves, and they kill very few caribou. The tiny percentage of caribou that are killed by wolves helps ensure the survival of the species. Mowat quotes an Inuit saying: The caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf who keeps the caribou strong.

    Wolf and caribou have lived together as predator and prey for time immemorial. The threat to caribou is the same threat to polar bears, and whales, and elephants, and tigers. There is only one animal who is a danger to the survival of whole species (including their own), who destroys habitats, who kills for sport, who lays waste to populations. And it's not wolves.

    * * * *

    Never Cry Wolf was published in 1963. Since that time, the facts that Mowat wrote about have become common knowledge. Yet wolf slaughter continues, and protections are stripped away or ignored. Without the myth of the bloodthirsty wolf, we can see this for what it truly is. Man kills wolf to eliminate the competition. 

    Everywhere there are still wolves, the wolf is still in danger.

    1.06.2021

    greetings island: the best e-card site you've never heard of

    Tl; dr: Greetings Island is the best e-greeting-card site. 

    * * * *

    I love greeting cards -- birthdays, anniversaries, thank yous, "glad you're my friend". I used to love spending time choosing unusual and relevant cards for family and friends. No Hallmark drivel, and no holidays that are meaningless to me -- but lots and lots of birthdays and thinking-of-yous. 

    I also used to send winter-season cards to a lot of people. My partner and I would carefully choose what card would represent us that year, and every year the list got longer and longer... At some point our list was out of control, and card-sending became a huge chore. Time to cut back! Or maybe to end the practice?

    When we moved to Canada, and I discovered that Papyrus products, my card of choice, were outrageously expensive here. On a month when I had a lot of birthdays on my calendar, the price of cards alone, without postage, could easily top $30! Of course the practice of sending cards is environmentally unfriendly, so this was a good excuse to drastically reduce. I decided to send paper cards only to elderly relatives who wouldn't see cards online.

    But then... the e-card issue. Most sites are loaded with ads. That's a deal-breaker for me. So my quest for a great e-card site began. 

    I used Jacqui Lawson cards for a while. The cards, based on Lawson's art, are animated and accompanied by music. At $24/year, it was a good deal, but the cards are all of a similar style, and I got tired of it.

    I used Punchbowl for a while. Their selection is good, but their pricing model doesn't work for me. Punchbowl has three paid levels -- right now it's $3, $5, and $7 per month -- but only the highest level is ad-free. I think advertising-free cards should be the most basic paid benefit, even if it's the only benefit. And $7/month is more than I want to spend on cards. 

    This year I did a big survey of e-card sites, and combed through many "best e-card sites of 2020" posts. Most sites were objectionable for various reasons. I thought about using a general design site like Canva, but for me, that's too wide a field -- too much work. I need something more specific.

    This year's clear winner was Greetings Island. The site has everything I'm looking for -- great selection, excellent usability, a wide range of personalization options, and an ad-free experience for both sender and recipient. 

    For me, $32/year -- $2.60/month -- is a very good deal. There is also a free (ad-supported) version with fewer options for personalization.

    In addition to sending cards online -- either through the site, by email, or through social media -- Greetings Island lets you download and print your card. This is still a good option for a workplace or someone on your list who is not internet-friendly.

    I hope Greetings Island keeps their card selection updated. It would be nice to continue using it for at least several years.