what i'm reading: a first time for everything, delightful autobiographical tween graphic

A First Time for Everything, by Dan Santat, is a perfect tween book. 

It's funny, sweet, honest, sometimes poignant but not sad. It's a gentle comfort for every kid who has ever felt awkward and different, and an incentive for everyone who is afraid to try new things. 

It's a sensitive and perceptive portrayal of how groups are formed. We often hear that kids can be cruel, and we see that in this book. But kids can be kind, too, and the book affirms that.

I read this book a while ago, and had been planning on writing a group review with some other tween graphics dealing with friendship. I read a few, flipped through a bunch more, and didn't find anything that came close to this book in quality or authenticity. I found each of them either too heavy-handed and preachy or too superficial and vapid. 

In A First Time for Everything, Dan Santat, the author of several children's books, tells the story of the class trip to Europe that he took in middle school. 

In school, Santat had some very embarrassing experiences and was bullied. Now he just wants to keep his head down and make it through middle school without further humiliations. The last thing he wants is anything involving a school group, and certainly not a group that includes some of the same girls who had bullied him. 

At first, it's as awful as he expects. But then Dan tries something new. And it makes him happy. Then he tries another new thing. And he enjoys it. He makes a new friend. He crushes on a girl, who is nice to him. A teacher encourages him. And... Dan starts to enjoy himself. He starts to feel comfortable in his own skin.

The new experiences young Dan has are very small, but they are meaningful. With each new experience, he gains a bit of confidence. And those small steps give him the confidence to try a slightly bigger steps, until he becomes a bit brave, a bit bold, and has a great time doing so.

Santat's portrayal of the beauty and power of the first crush and the first kiss are dead-on. In fact, I found all of it dead-on. 

In flashbacks, we learn more about young Dan's prior bad experiences, which deepens our understanding of his growth. Knowing that Santat wrote this about his life, his own experiences, makes the story more poignant -- and makes you cheer Dan's triumph even more.

One thing I absolutely loved about A First Time for Everything was Santat's inclusion of actual photos he took on the trip, along with a little who's who guide to the characters. 

A First Time for Everything is not so much a coming-of-age story as a journey of self-discovery. It's the best tween graphic I've read in a very long time.


another insidious bit of the digital divide: access to customer service for smartphones only

We need another word for it.

The digital divide -- the gap between those with access to modern information and communication technologies and those without -- has been recognized since at least the 1990s. Attempts to narrow this gap are usually publicly funded, always operating from scarcity, or small concessions eked out of corporations. Either way, the bridges are tiny, flimsy, and often temporary. Untold numbers of people have been left behind.

Over time the digital divide has widened and deepened. The words digital divide are grossly inadequate, almost quaint. Digital canyon? Digital chasm? Right now it feels like a digital abyss.

Better living through apps -- or not

I recently stumbled on a bit of this gaping divide. I knew about this vaguely, in some abstract way, but now understand it more clearly: improved access to customer service for smartphone users. Sometimes, access to customer service only for people with smartphones.

I wasn't an early adopter of the smartphone. I like to add technology as I need it, not simply because it exists. I prefer not to fork over any more of my income to mega-corporations unless there's a demonstrable benefit in doing so. New technology should save me time or effort, or bring me joy, or why should I bother? So I do use a smartphone, but I apply this to the use of apps as well.

There are apps that simplify processes, so they're worth using. There are apps that make our lives easier. But many apps appear to be more for a company's access to me, rather than the reverse. For example, when I shop online, I prefer sitting at a computer, using full websites. It's easier to see products, read reviews, compare one company's offerings against another. Which of course is why companies want to drive us to their apps: once we're there, we're captive.

Customer service of privilege

Which brings me to what I recently learned. Perhaps I'm the last person on the haves side of the digital divide to discover this, but I've been astonished to learn what improved customer service I receive through apps.

I had a problem with a credit card, and needed to speak with someone. I called the phone number on the card and on the website. I navigated my way through the menu, went down the wrong path, and was cut off -- more than once. 

When I finally found the correct pathway, I was on hold for 50 minutes. Of course I had the call on speaker, and was doing other things while I waited, but still, I had to listen to the hold "music," and I was limited in what else I could do. 

When at last I spoke with a human, it turned out I would need another phone call to a different department. I asked the customer service rep for a more direct number, and was told: call through the app, you'll get through immediately. Now that is a reason to download and use an app. So I did. I called the bank through the app, and was speaking with a human in less than five minutes.

Some months later, I had a question about Aeroplan miles, which means calling Air Canada. Air Canada is renowned for poor customer service. The company has shred their workforce to the bone, so getting anyone to help you with anything is a nightmare. 

I tried finding the answer to my question online. Fruitless. 

Dreading the next step, I called the Aeroplan number and was on hold for two hours and never got through. I am not exaggerating: I am looking at my call history as I type this: 1 hour, 58 minutes. I gave up.

I then downloaded the Aeroplan app and had my answer in under five minutes. I didn't have to speak with anyone: the information I needed was available through the app, but not through the website.

This is terrible customer service. But beyond that, it's customer service as privilege. What happens to customers who don't have smartphones, who can't afford them, who don't know how to download an app? One would think that companies would still want those people's money, but apparently the savings in labour force outweighs the benefits of reaching potential customers.

It's disgusting. It's wrong. And it's only going to get worse. 


i used to be an activist: another piece of myself has gone missing. or maybe it's on hiatus.

In my experience, the best activism begins like this.

I used to be an activist.

Not being actively involved in a grassroots movement, a part of myself is lost. It's an intentional choice, given the realities that I cannot change. It's what I need. But it's a loss. There's a part of my life that I truly miss.

My purpose and meaning

I've been an activist my entire life. 

I would usually focus on one issue, and explore what I could do within it. South Africa apartheid. Reproductive rights. Violence against women. At-risk youth. Abortion access. US war resisters in Canada. Labour. Each of these, for a time, was a central focus of my life. What gave my life meaning and purpose.

Writing was also part of this. At its best, when I could snag the opportunity, my writing was advocacy. And it certainly was my meaning and purpose. But my activism was in its own sphere. 

When I first became active, I was not a leader. I wasn't even much of a joiner! I wasn't comfortable in group settings; I hadn't found my niche. Realizing my potential as a leader, and becoming comfortable within activist spaces, were big areas of personal growth.

I quickly realized I wanted to work in the grassroots. A group of like-minded people, drawn together by a shared purpose, figuring out a way forward, planning actions, creating opportunities for others to get involved. 

My areas of focus developed organically, expressions of what was important to me, what was most on my mind. I took breaks between issues. I chose what to do next and it chose me.

Throughout most of this time, I didn't work full-time. I was more than full-time busy, but I could cycle through my writing, my various day-jobs, my friends and relationships, and my activism. 

It broke down, and I almost broke down with it

When I became a local union leader, I was also working full-time. This was a big adjustment; more than that, it was unsustainable. I have a chronic health condition, and it was -- to use the common euphemism -- extremely challenging to take care of my health while working and unioning. 

I did that for five years. I have no regrets -- I think back on that time with great pride and joy -- but it took a great toll. Before we decided to move to BC, I had already decided not to run for re-election, and to take a less intensive role in the local.

After we moved, my new local union was led by a group of super smart, talented, badass leaders. I knew I would be active, but I also wanted to put strict limits on my involvement. Now I'm a steward, and a member of my local executive. I was on the last bargaining committee, and I would like to be on the next one. Union is an important part of my life -- I love knowing and working with union people -- but it's well contained.

So here I am

My current work is very challenging and demanding. I love it, but it's full-on. When I'm not working, I very much want a quiet, focused life, and I've committed to that. Reading, writing, cooking, walking. Solo pursuits like working on a puzzle or practicing piano. Time with friends and family. When possible, some travel.  

That I can even talk about this is a sign of my great privilege. It's no accident that most people cannot be active in issues they care about. Our society -- the economic system -- is structured in a way that keeps us busy, too busy to question and work on dismantling the system itself. Full-time work, or more likely, multiple part-time jobs, leaves little enough time for the demands of family, and even basic pleasures, never mind changing the world. For millions who also live with chronic illness -- often linked to trauma -- accomplishing just the basics is a huge undertaking.

And it just gets harder all the time. As capitalism continues its death spiral, the cost of living rises, supports shrink, and life just gets harder. Food insecurity is on the rise. More seniors are living in poverty. These statistics are always lower than reality, defining poverty too low, and not measuring hidden poverty. People choosing between eating and staying warm. Parents skipping meals so their children can eat. Seniors caught shoplifting food. Tiny increases in benefits don't even approach the rising cost of living. More people starve, and freeze, or barely scrape by. 

That we can even talk about this in a nation as wealthy as Canada is a disgrace. And it is completely preventable. Meanwhile, profits soar.

What I'd be doing, if I could 

There are two issues right now that I'd like to be more active in: the movement against Israeli apartheid, and end-of-life choice. But when I think about how I might do that, it breaks down. 

I write letters, I sign petitions, I stay informed. But I'm not out there trying to get others to write letters or meet with their MPs. I'm not organizing, I'm not leading.

Recently my MP had a petition, focusing on a way to remove more harmful waste from the ocean, and an important step for coastal communities like mine. I thought I would solicit signatures in my town. I wanted to... and I never did. 

I joined Labour for Palestine and have attended a few meetings, but I couldn't follow through. 

Dying With Dignity Canada suggests many ways to get involved, but I haven't taken the first step.

I never adopted the language of spoon theory, because I had these ideas decades before the term was coined and popularized. But no matter how we visualize it, time and energy are finite. Health comes first.

It's not only health. I want a quieter, more focused life. A life with more white space on my calendar. In this sense, what I want and what I need align.

Maybe tomorrow, maybe some day

If I'm lucky enough to stay alive and healthy and mobile past retirement, perhaps I'll find my way back to activism.

I have similar thoughts on travel. I don't know if or when we will travel again, other than for family visits. Now in our early 60s, we know our priority must be putting ourselves in the best position for a semi-comfortable retirement, or at least a retirement without poverty. 

I know this, yet travel nags at me. It's not just something I love: it's who I am. Not traveling is giving up a part of myself.

The same is true for activism. My work adds value to the community. I am involved in advocacy -- for my community, and for library workers. Perhaps that is a form of activism, but I miss the grassroots. 

This is my choice, and it isn't. I'm choosing to be more mindful of my health, to not burn out. I didn't choose the conditions that make that necessary. 

Everything in life is a trade-off. Every choice brings both opportunity and loss. I'm truly happy with my life now. And these pieces of myself are left behind.

I'm not fishing for validation or approval. Just putting this out there.


Some related reading:

"I used to be an activist." by Daniel Giles Helm.

My first activist step, by Nicole Bedford

I'm a "spoonie": here's what I wish more people knew about chronic illness, by Kirsten Schultz 

The original spoon theory post by Christine Miserandino