12.02.2019

toni morrison on good and evil in literature

Graphic via
Students Exploring Inequality in Canada
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by stories of forgiveness and redemption. I believe endlessly in the human capacity for redemption, and that belief that has only been strengthened as I've seen more of the world.

The stories that interest me the most are when people who suffer loss do not seek vengeance.

I first came upon this idea in the book Dead Man Walking, the 1994 book by Sister Helen Prejean. Prejean is foundational for me, and this book had a profound influence on my worldview. (I already opposed capital punishment when I read it.)

Stories of people who lost loved ones to violence, and opposed the execution of the murderer, always get my attention. I don't see them as often now, as I follow US news very closely.* But the Death Penalty Information Centre gives many examples of this.

The National Coalition Against the Death Penalty has many resources for and about people seeking an alternative to vengeance, such as Murder Victims Families for Human Rights.

The ACLU published Voices from California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Recent studies have questioned the idea that executing murderers brings "closure" to the families of victims.

For myself, a few memorable examples come to mind.

A father who lost a daughter on the attacks of September 11, 2001 spoke out against the invasion of Iraq, and against the death penalty for anyone responsible for the attacks. He said his daughter unequivocally opposed capital punishment and he honours her memory by picking up that cause.

The people of Norway after "22 July", as it is known there, refused vengeance, and refused to sacrifice human rights or civil liberties in response to the attacks.

And this powerful story, told here by Toni Morrison.
On an October morning in 2006, a young man backed his truck into the driveway of a one-room schoolhouse. He walked into the school and after ordering the boy students, the teacher and a few other adults to leave, he lined up 10 girls, ages 9 to 13, and shot them. The mindless horror of that attack drew intense and sustained press as well as, later on, books and film. Although there had been two other school shootings only a few days earlier, what made this massacre especially notable was the fact that its landscape was an Amish community — notoriously peaceful and therefore the most unlikely venue for such violence.

Before the narrative tracking the slaughter had been exhausted in the press, another rail surfaced, one that was regarded as bizarre and somehow as shocking as the killings. The Amish community forgave the killer, refused to seek justice, demand vengeance, or even to judge him. They visited and comforted the killer's widow and children (who were not Amish), just as they embraced the relatives of the slain. There appeared a number of explanations for their behavior — their historical aversion to killing anyone at all for any reason and their separatist convictions. More to the point, the Amish community had nothing or very little to say to outside inquiry except that it was God's place to judge, not theirs. And, as one cautioned, "Do not think evil of this man." They held no press conferences and submitted to no television interviews. They quietly buried the dead, attended the killer's funeral, then tore down the old schoolhouse and built a new one.
Morrison used this story as an introduction to a lecture to the Harvard Divinity School in 2012. After Morrison's death earlier this year, the New York Times published the text of the talk. I loved reading this and perhaps you will also enjoy it.

Toni Morrison on "Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination".



* The US remains the only so-called developed country that still executes, keeping company with North Korea, Iran, and China. Despite more than 150 exonerations of death-row prisoners, and despite all that is known about capital punisment, 29 states still use the death penalty.

12.01.2019

maya moore's quest for justice

Long ago (in internet terms), in the early days of what we then called the Blogosphere, one of the primary functions of blogs was to share other posts and articles of interest that we came across online. Social media has taken over that function -- and much less effectively. How many people actually read links they find on Twitter? While a meme or a short video may go viral, a lengthy think-piece becomes just another passing link in the endless feed.

I stopped using this blog to share articles of interest, but sometimes I come upon something that I just can't let go. Then I need to send them out into the world again through wmtc. I have a couple of those right now. Here's the first one.

* * * *

Maya Moore, currently one of the best professional basketball players on the planet, stunned the WNBA and its fans when she announced she would not play in the 2019 season.

Her reasons are even more surprising: Moore left the game to focus on social justice. Specifically, justice for one man, wrongly convicted and serving prison time in the state of Missouri, and more generally, for a more just justice system. Moore believes this is her purpose in life, deeply connected to her faith.

Last summer, Moore's team, the Minnesota Lynx, took the court wearing t-shirts declaring "Change Starts with Us. Justice & Accountability" on the front and "Black Lives Matter" on the back, along with the names [Philando] Castile and [Alton] Sterling, two of the many African Americans killed by police. The t-shirt also displayed the Dallas, Texas Police shield, a reference to the five police officers killed by a sniper in 2016, one man's protest against police violence.

Moore became interested in the case of Jonathan Irons, currently serving 50 years for a crime he was convicted of in 1998, at the age of 16. She was so moved by the injustice of Irons' case that she decided to focus full-time on criminal-justice reform.

There's also another thread to this story. The WNBA has a salary cap of $120,000. By contrast, the minimum salary in the NBA is $98.226 million. Some fans laud female players for being less "greedy," but $120,000 may like a comfortable salary. But athletes' careers are very short and can be cut even shorter by injury. To maximize earning potential to help secure their futures, female players will also play in European and Asian leagues, essentially playing all year round with very few breaks.

When Moore stunned the basketball world with her announcement in the Players' Tribune website, she left her reasons vague. Then she sat down with sportswriter Kurt Streeter and told her story.

To read more about Moore's decision and Irons' case, see this story from June of this year, in the New York Times: Maya Moore Left Basketball. A Prisoner Needed Her Help.

11.28.2019

what i'm reading: the marrow thieves, the glass beads

Cherie Dimaline's The Marrow Thieves, winner of multiple Canadian awards, is a brilliant book -- and a frightening one. Set in a future Canada after climate change has devastated the planet, Indigenous people are being hunted. The government believes Indigenous people are useful for survival. "Recruiters" kidnap them, and force them into "schools" where they are exploited -- to death.

In other words, it's a future dystopia that sounds and feels all too real.

The reader follows Frenchie, 16 years old and already a survivor of so much loss, as he finds a group of other Indigenous survivors, and gradually bonds with them as a new family. Each member of the group has a back story, each has challenges.

All are believable, heartrending in different ways. Some are resolved in ways that are uplifting, others in ways that are devastating. Each character feels real, complex, multi-dimensional. An astute reader may think they know where a certain relationship is going, based on dystopian novel cliches, but Dimaline is too good a writer to fall back on those templates.

The details of the why Indigenous people are being used, how they are being exploited, adds a touch of magic realism to the plot. After the climate devastation, with millions dead and society struggling to rebuild, white people have lost the ability to dream. And without dreams, they have lost the will to survive. The government believes that the DNA of Indigenous people holds the cure, and is forcibly extracting their bone marrow.

But is this magic realism, or has the government stumbled on an Indigenous way of knowing and tried to harness it to science (or maybe pseudo-science), to exploit it for larger gain? The purpose and origin of dreams are different in an Indigenous worldview. This is left for the reader to ponder.

The chilling storyline also weaves in echoes of the Residential Schools, and the time -- not so very long ago -- when Indigenous children were kidnapped, exploited, and met a spiritual, psychological, and sometimes physical, death. Every Canadian (and hopefully anyone else) reading this book would understand the connection, yet the historical references never stand out uncomfortably.

The Marrow Thieves is generally classified as a young-adult novel, since the main character is a teen. These days, most YA books include some gay characters, as a matter of course. In The Marrow Thieves, this is particularly well done, as an Indigenous man who is one of the leaders of the group of survivors tells his own story, which involves his husband. And although we're long past the time that this should be remarkable, to this reader, at my age, it is and will always be remarkably beautiful.

The Marrow Thieves is a very good book -- engrossing, heartbreaking, uplifting, frightening.

Glass Beads by Dawn Dumont takes place very much in the present, but in a world few non-Native people may know. The story follows the trials and tribulations of four First Nations young adults (who refer to themselves as Native, which is very common in Canada) making their way in the mainstream world.

They are in school or not in school, working or not working, drinking alcohol or abstaining, loving and trusting or hiding their hearts, making good decisions and bad. In other words, they are living their lives. But they are First Nations people, so their stories contain all the cultural and political implications that would imply. As in The Marrow Thieves, here another Indigenous Canadian writer tells stories that illustrate themes, without ever letting the themes overwhelm the story. It's beautifully done.

The best part of Glass Beads, to me, is the humour. There's a lot of casual humour, sometimes self-deprecating, or a funny internal monologue, or a bit of head-shaking sarcasm about a bizarre but ordinary situation. I love when humour is used in decidedly not-funny circumstances, whether it's a coping mechanism or just the human ability to laugh at ourselves. Because I prefer to read books "cold", I didn't know that the author, a Cree woman from Saskatchewan, is also a stand-up comedian who has worked many major venues. (She's also an actor and playwright.) I loved learning that Dumont does comedy professionally. It makes perfect sense.

Glass Beads is called a collection of linked stories, but I disagree. To me, it's a novel. The 20 sections -- which take place over two decades, from the 1990s through the early 2000s --  read like chapters of a whole, not stand-alone stories. I don't read contemporary short stories, and wouldn't have normally have tried this book; it was promoted in my library's first "One Book, One Community" program. If you enjoy an episodic novel with interesting characters and a view into another culture, Glass Beads is a good read.

11.16.2019

"at your library" in the north island eagle: you can now borrow video games from your library

I am very pleased to announce that all Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) branches now offer video games! You can request and borrow games for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.

Video games are a great fit for the public library.

You -- our customers -- want media. Whether you borrow DVDs, stream Kanopy, or listen to downloadable audiobooks, we want to help you access media. We believe our library services should reflect what our customers are interested in.

Video games are for play – but play can be educational. Video games help develop "digital literacy," the ability to use information and communication technologies, and also "visual literacy," the ability to understand and interpret images.

This may surprise you, but playing video games can help improve reading skills – especially for reluctant readers. Many games require a lot of reading, and the interactive story building helps develop reading comprehension. Games can also help develop decision-making and critical thinking skills. We all learn best when we enjoy what we're learning. Video games can be a way to sneak more reading practice into your child's day.

A video game collection also reflects VIRL's strong belief in access for all. Video games are expensive, and rental stores no longer exist. As with books, computers, and internet access, the Library helps even the playing field a bit, giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy recreation options that they might not be able to afford.

VIRL's video game collection has something for everyone – games that the whole family can play together, and games that are intended for mature audiences. We don't believe it's the Library's place to tell people what they can or cannot read or watch. When it comes to children, that's a job best left to parents and caregivers.

Every video game sold in Canada has an "ESRB" rating, to help parents and caregivers decide what's appropriate. ESRB is the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the video game industry organization that provides information about the content of games. The ESRB rating system was developed with input from experts in child development.

If you're concerned about inappropriate content of games, and you're not sure how to interpret the ratings, we're there to help.

You can borrow video games for one week, and if no one's waiting for it, you can renew it two times.

If you do borrow a video game, we want to hear from you. You'll find comment cards in every game. Let us know what you think!

in which i reflect on many one-year anniversaries of a big life change


It's November. Here at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, the days are getting mighty short. It's not cold -- most days still reach 9 or 10 C -- but the gray sky and low sun feel like winter.

This time last year, everything was happening. I was buzzing with nervous energy -- making lists, organizing the cross-country move, preparing to leave my job, preparing to leave my life and start anew.

Now, I feel a tremendous sense of calm and contentment.

Next week begins all the "one year since". One year since we left our jobs, began driving from Ontario to BC, one year since moved into the rental house, began our new jobs and our new lives. One year since we stepped off a cliff into the unknown.

Nothing is ever 100%. There's no such thing in life. I accept that and like to acknowledge it without regret. I miss people. I miss the unique joy and energy I found working with an incredible union team and what we accomplished together. We lost Diego, and -- since we adopted new dogs while he was still with us -- I barely had time to mourn him.



This downside is a small corner of my brain against a huge wash of happiness. I sometimes feel a little twinge of guilt or embarrassment at my good fortune. I remember when we first moved to Canada, I had the same feeling. I wish everyone could be this happy.

My job has given me an opportunity to really stretch out professionally, to test my skills, to turn my knowledge into action. There's been a huge learning curve and a lot to negotiate, but it's unfolding the way it's supposed to. I see the impact we're making on the communities we serve. It's incredibly gratifying.

My job brought me to this unique little corner of the world, where a strange combination -- both of us being well-employed in a place with un-inflated housing costs -- led us to buy a house. We are thrilled. Not because we now own instead of renting -- in fact, I often wish I could call a landlord to get something done! It's the house itself. It's the nicest place we've ever lived, and it suits us perfectly. I feel so perfectly cozy and content in it.




And there's one more change in my own life, one I knew was coming, but couldn't predict how it would feel. I suddenly have time to myself. A giant chunk of time that was formerly devoted to activism or grad school or my union is suddenly... free. It's more than a little strange.

On one hand, I miss activism. I miss the passion, the collaboration, the unique and powerful feeling of being part of a team, all working together for something we deeply believe in. Whatever I was involved in, over most of my adult life, I've had incredible experiences that imbued my life with meaning.

My activism has always taken up a big chunk of my time. I've taken breaks in between causes or groups, but in those cases I was either recovering from illness, making a huge life change, or going to grad school while working two part-time jobs.

Plus, for much of my adult life, I had two job streams -- my day job, and my writing. I would juggle and cycle back and forth between them.

Now, the meaning that I found from activism, I derive from my paid employment. Meaningful work -- what a concept!

And add in one more factor: small-town life. We spend no time commuting. We spend no time stuck in traffic, or looking for parking. Everything we need is in one place, two minutes away.

So all at once, the constant busy-ness of my life stopped. Even though I work full-time, I feel I have a lot of time to myself, because my calendar isn't packed full of meetings and events.

Most of this free time, I spend doing the things I've always done: reading, writing, watching movies or series, doing jigsaw puzzles, walking, hiking. Taking the dogs to the beach. Cooking. Eventually, piano lessons. It's nothing special -- but it's hugely special. I feel so at peace.

11.11.2019

11.11: there is no glory in war

Eleven people, on war.

*  *  *  *

Imprisoned for opposing U.S. involvement in the
war in Europe, Debs ran for President from jail.
He garnered 1,000,000 votes, at a time when
the US population was 103,208,000, and
only men could vote.
These are the gentry who are today wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty, eager to apply the brand of treason to the men who dare to even whisper their opposition. . . . No wonder Sam Johnson declared that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He must have had this Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people. . . .

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt.

And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.

-- Eugene V. Debs, from the Canton, Ohio speech, June 16, 1918 (Speech here; context here.)

*  *  *  *

War is methodical, organized, gigantic murder.

-- Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, 1916
Rosa Luxemburg travels into the twenty-first century like a great messenger bird, spanning continents, scanning history, to remind us that our present is not new but a continuation of a long human conflict changing only in intensity and scope. Her fiery critical intellect and ardent spirit are as vital for this time as in her own. 
-- Adrienne Rich


*  *  *  *


Mohandas Gandhi, 1869-1948
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?

-- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

This photo is from the Salt March, a pivotal moment in the history of civil disobedience.

*  *  *  *

And Göring said, "Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war? But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy. The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. All you have to do is tell them they're being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism. It works the same way in any country."

I was interested in that last line: "It works the same way in any country." I mean, here, these are the Nazis. That's the fascist regime. We are a democracy. But it works the same way in any country, whatever you call yourself. Whether you call yourself a totalitarian state or you call yourself a democracy, it works the same way, and that is, the leaders of the country are able to cajole or coerce and entice the people into war by scaring them, telling them they're in danger, and threatening them and coercing them, that if they don't go along, they will be considered unpatriotic. And this is what really happened in this country right after 9/11. And this is happened right after Bush raised the specter of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and got for a while the American people to go along with this.

But the question is, how did they get away with it? What about the press? What about the media? Isn't it the job of the press, isn't it the job of the media, isn't it the job of journalism to expose what governments do? Don't journalists learn from I.F. Stone, who said, "Just remember two words," he said to young people who were studying journalism, he said, "Just remember two words: governments lie"? . . . .

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010
And the question is, why still did the people believe what they read in the press, and why did they believe what they saw on television? And I would argue that it has something to do with a loss of history, has something to do with, well, what Studs Terkel called "national amnesia," either the forgetting of history or the learning of bad history, the learning of the kind of history that you do get, of Columbus was a hero, and Teddy Roosevelt is a hero, and Andrew Jackson is a hero, and all these guys who were presidents and generals and industrialists, and so on. They are the great -- they are the people who made America great, and America has always done good things in the world. And we have had our little problems, of course -- like slavery, for instance, you know -- but we overcome them, you know, and, you know. No, not that kind of history.

If the American people really knew history, if they learned history, if the educational institutions did their job, if the press did its job in giving people historical perspective, then a people would understand. When the President gets up before the microphone, says we must go to war for this or for that, for liberty or for democracy, or because we're in danger, and so on, if people had some history behind them, they would know how many times presidents have announced to the nation, we must go to war for this reason or that reason. They would know that President Polk said, "Oh, we must go to war against Mexico, because, well, there was an incident that took place on the border there, and our honor demands that we go to war."

They would know, if they knew some history, how President McKinley took the nation into war against Spain and Cuba, saying, "Oh, we're going in to liberate the Cubans from Spanish control." And in fact, there was a little bit of truth to that: we did go in, we fought against Spain, we got Spain out of Cuba, we liberated them from Spain, but not from ourselves. And so, Spain was out, and United Fruit was in, and then the American banks and the American corporations were in. (It goes on... you should keep reading.)

-- Howard Zinn

*  *  *  *

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
-- Dwight D. Eisenhower

A quote from a POTUS in an approving context: this may be a first -- and an only -- for wmtc. This man had great insight: he gave us this.

*  *  *  *

I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.

Selma to Montgomery, 1965
King came to believe that the civil rights movement
and the anti-war movement were inextricable.
It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.

Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home that can’t hardly live on the same block together.

-- Martin Luther King, Jr., from Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, sermon on March 31, 1968, National Cathedral in Washington, DC

*  *  *  *

Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac. . . .

All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.

-- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.

-- George Orwell, 1984

*  *  *  *

For his refusal to be drafted, Ali was stripped of
his heavyweight title, his boxing license, and his passport.
He had no idea if he would ever box again. 
My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father.

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

No. I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.

-- Muhammad Ali, 1968

*  *  *  *

I no longer feel allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despite being one myself. I think that Peeta was onto something about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over. Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.

-- Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

Collins: I was flipping though images on reality television where these young people were competing for a million dollars, then I was seeing footage from the Iraq war, and these two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way.

*  *  *  *

He wrote the greatest anti-war novel of all time.
But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony. Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?

-- Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929

*  *  *  *

Historically, the most terrible things -- war, genocide, and slavery -- have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.

-- Howard Zinn

11.03.2019

what i'm reading: the birth of the pill by jonathan eig

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig was a fascinating and very readable look at how oral contraceptives -- otherwise known as The Pill -- came to be.

The Pill changed the world. It was the first contraception that was nearly 100% effective, easy to use, did not interrupt or alter sex, and crucially, controlled by the woman who used it. It was also the first option to be both effective and reversible; pre-Pill, the only completely effective birth-control was sterilization. The advent of oral contraceptives, and later, the availability of safe and legal abortion, liberated millions of women from the fear of unwanted pregnancy, and in doing so, lifted millions of children out of poverty, by giving women the ability to limit the size of their families.

Eig tells the story through the lens of four people -- all iconoclasts, all rebels, and none of them saints.

Safe, effective, reversible, female-controlled, non-barrier birth control was the dream and lifelong quest of Margaret Sanger. Sanger had dual motivations. She saw the effects of unlimited conception all around her, in families forced into poverty by the burden of too many children, and above all in women who were physically and mentally exhausted from breeding, women dying from too many births or unsafe abortions. Women from around the world begged Sanger to help them.

The ill effects of too-large families was a prime motivator, but Sanger wanted more than a limit to pregnancy. She wanted women to be able to fulfill their sexual potential, by freeing sex from the fear of unwanted pregnancy, and freeing birth-control from dependence on the male partner. She wanted women to know the liberating powers of joyful, consensual sex. She wanted women to be able to enjoy sex just because they could.

Contraception and sex for pleasure: both goals put Sanger directly in the crosshairs of the government and the Catholic Church. In 1950, when Eig's story begins, it was illegal to distribute birth control, or even to share information about it, in the U.S.

Sanger was arrested more than once, and served jail time for founding the United States' first birth-control clinic, in Brooklyn in 1916. Yet for all her feminism, Sanger is a hero. She found common cause with eugenicists, and favoured sterilization of "undesirable" people, which could mean people with disabilities or brown people -- or whatever else. Eig doesn't shy away from this, or try to sugar-coat it, but he keeps it in perspective. Sanger is a hero with a dark side.

Gregory Pincus held a similar position in the scientific community -- a passionate outsider. A biologist, Pincus had been bounced out of Harvard University for his experiments in in vitro fertilization. He founded his own foundation on a shoestring, going door-to-door in Worcester, Massachusetts for tiny donations.

Pincus was a cowboy scientist, with reckless ethical standards, a flare for public relations, and an ego that wouldn't quit. Eig's portrait of Pincus is amusing and head-shaking by turns.

The third iconoclast in the rebellious quartet was Katharine McCormick, a brilliant woman with a scientific background (she was one of the first women to graduate from MIT), an unshakable feminism, and a ton of money to give away. She spent vast sums on the project, without so much as a formal grant proposal. When Pincus said he needed funds, McCormick opened her checkbook.

McCormick figures in to the one of the book's best anecdotes, which gives a nice taste of Eig's lively writing.
"...Demand [for diaphragms] far exceeded supply. Diaphragms were smuggled into the country from Canada, but still the Bureau [the birth control clinic] couldn't get enough. Katharine proposed bringing in more from Europe and developed a plan for doing it. In May 1923, she sailed across the Atlantic with eight pieces of luggage, including three large trunks. While there, she bought more large trunks, explaining that she intended to purchase many of the "latest fashions" during her trip. She met with diaphragm manufacturers, placed her orders, and had the devices shipped to her chateau. Then she hired local seamstresses to sew the diaphragms into newly purchased clothing, put the clothing on hangers, and packed the exquisite dresses and coats in tissue. Eight large trunks were loaded, sent through customs, and carried aboard the ship as Katharine sailed for home, handing out generous gratuities at every station. Katharine McCormick, aristocrat, smuggler, rebel, arrived at the clinic by taxi trailing a truck containing the most exquisitely packaged diaphragms the works had ever seen -- more than a thousand in all, enough to last the clinic a year.
The fourth pillar in this odd quartet was, to me, the least interesting, but he played a key role that no one else could have filled. John Rock, a gynecologist, was the epitome of the trusted physician -- tall, silver-haired, elegant, formal, charming. He was also a devout Catholic. Rock had deep faith, but he didn't believe the institutional Church was infallible. He believed that a woman’s health was more important than that of her fetus. He believed that sex within a marriage, not necessarily for procreation, was a good and healthy thing. He believed in the potential of science to improve lives, and that, as he put it, "religion is a very poor scientist".

Rock became the public spokesman for The Pill. He wanted to convince ordinary Catholics -- and the Catholic Church -- to embrace birth control. Rock was never able to persuade the Church, but he helped soothe public fears, and he helped The Pill get FDA approval despite massive pressure from the Vatican.

Researching a bit for this post, I noticed several reviewers took exception to Eig's storyline. One thought he glossed over Sanger's involvement in eugenics. The book definitely does not do this, but it's also not a book about Sanger or eugenics. Another writer felt Eig didn't properly expand on the changing social mores that The Pill helped bring about. I thought he made a good case for that, but again, the book isn't about the "sexual revolution" itself. It's about, as the title says, the birth of The Pill.

As that, The Birth of the Pill is an entertaining and very readable account of a hidden history that deserves to be known.

10.31.2019

listening to joni: #11: wild things run fast

Wild Things Run Fast, 1982

Front Cover
Wild Things Run Fast feels like the beginning of a new Joni era.

Mingus ended a trajectory. After Mingus, Joni toured, and took a break from recording. From now on she would release an album every three or four years, rather than annually as she once did.

For me, Wild Things is an easy album to enjoy. It's tuneful and accessible, Joni's voice velvety over well-honed pop-jazz. With the opening notes of the first track, "Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody", you know you're in familiar territory, reminiscent of Hissing and Hejira, but simplified and streamlined.

Back Cover
I wonder if this lady has a hole in her stockings.





"Chinese Cafe" laments lost youth, and the lost landmarks of youth, the paved-over paradise, not with a deep sadness, just a wistfulness, an acceptance. Joni sings to an old friend, as she did in "Song for Sharon". Careful listeners, hearing My child's a stranger, I bore her, but I could not raise her, can flash back to "Little Green" from Blue. But Joni's reunion with her daughter is still 15 years away.

Joni weaves the "Chinese Cafe" tune into the classic "Unchained Melody", but without the deep despair that song is often given by singers, more of a straightforward reading. This is in keeping with the feel of the whole album. After all, a centerpiece is "Play It Cool", with the refrain, Play it cool, play it cool, fifty-fifty, fire and ice.

In the title track, Joni touches on the love-vs-freedom conflict, this time from the perspective of "Coyote" or "Blond in the Bleachers". No sadness here either -- more of a bemused understanding: eating from her hand at last. But when it gets too cozy:
Fast tracks in the powder white
Leading out to the road
Winding from her tender grasp
Perhaps "Ladies Man" was inspired by the same dude, a man who can charm the diamonds off a rattlesnake. This is a wonderfully provocative line:
Why do you keep on trying to
Make a man of me
Couldn't you just love me
Like you love cocaine
"Moon at the Window" has the feel of a jazz standard, Joni's voice dipping and swooping into high and low registers, Wayne Shorter's soprano sax flying alongside, Joni's signature harmonies, once again her own backup singer.
Is it possible to learn
How to care and not care
Since love has two faces
Hope and despair
Inside Cover
Classic Joni lyrics, but with a cool sound, no angst here.

"This Solid Love" was and always will be about Joni's relationship with bassist and producer Larry Klein (who Joni has always called Klein). It's no small feat to write a happy, celebratory love song that isn't sappy or simplistic.
Love always made me feel so uneasy
I couldn't relax and just be me
More like some strange disease
Than this solid love
She also uses a bit of talk-singing to proclaim their love Un-believable and Hot dog darlin'.

"Underneath the Streetlight" is also a celebration of love. And the closing track is one of the most profound celebrations of love ever written: Corinthians 13. I love the cadences of the King James Bible, and am a huge fan of the poetry of Corinthians; Joni singing them is a rare treat for me. This is not a religious thing; I'm a Jewish atheist. But if you love Shakespeare, you've got to give King James a chance.

The woman whose heartweariness sang Maybe I've never really loved, I guess that is the truth, the woman who growled Love's a repetitious danger, now offers, If I didn't have love, I'd have nothing.

Wild Things Run Fast is a celebration of love in many forms.

Joni and Klein, from inside cover

Along with "Unchained Melody", there's another cover on this album, Leiber and Stoller's "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care". It's a bit of a throwaway track, but it works well with "Solid Love" and "Underneath the Streetlight".

Bad critic comment of the album

There are quite a few to choose from for this album. Although some critics praised Wild Things, most found it too simplistic, too pop, not pop enough, too unstructured, too this, too that.

Richard Cook, writing in NME, finds "nothing of consequence to remark on", pans the "distressingly simple" rock sound, and dismisses Wayne Shorter and certain production values as "a rich woman's indulgence". He damns-with-faint-praise Joni's voice, and sneers at past lyrics: "And there were always her diaries to look through, over and over."

The worst stab of the review, however, is a very low -- and ignorant -- blow: comparing Joni unfavourably to Rickie Lee Jones. Jones at the time was wearing a beret and smoking brown cigarillos, telling the music media how she wasn't influenced by Joni.

The album cover

I really like this album cover. On the front, Joni's given us another self-portrait, in a casual, jaunty pose, but with a serious or neutral expression on her face. She's leaning on a television, which is showing another of her paintings -- a herd of wild horses, running fast. In the same room, used on the back cover, are a pair of women's shoes, black heels that appear hastily kicked-off.

We get two other Joni paintings, too: one of Joni and Klein, which was a study for this painting, "Solid Love". Also on the inside cover, there's another black-and-white study, a little glimpse of Joni the painter at work, or perhaps her mind at work. There's an art book, open to a two-page spread showing Matisse's "La Danse", a wicker chair that looks straight out of Paris, paints and brushes, and a painting of the shoes shown on the back cover.

I love how so many of Joni's paintings include a frame of some type -- a picture frame, the TV, a painting in a painting.

Cacti or stockings?

I think we're done with references to cactus and stockings.

Other musicians on this album

Drums, John Guerin, Vinnie Colaiuta
Bass, Larry Klein
Electric Guitar, Steve Lukather, Larry Carlton, Mike Landau
Prophet Synth, Larry Williams
Soprano Sax, Wayne Shorter
Tenor Sax, Larry Williams
Baritone Sax, Kim Hutchcroft
Oberheim Synth, Russell Ferrante
Percussion, Victor Feldman
Background vocals, Lionel Richie, Charles Valentino, Howard Kinney, James Taylor, John Guerin, Kenny Rankin, Robert De La Garza, Skip Cottrell