why this blog looks strange right now (updated) (upperdated)

A post was accidentally deleted -- an essay that took a while to write. Happily, I had recently backed up the whole blog. And thank goodness, as it had been a long while since the last backup.

In order to restore the missing post, Allan imported the backup copy... and instead of all the posts merging, they re-posted. I think that's because they were originally posted by me, but imported by Allan, making him a new author, causing Blogger to read the imported posts as new.

Now we've got to get rid of about 7,000 duplicate posts.

Sadly, all the lovely comments on this post have been lost. There were about 30 comments; five remain. That's frustrating. Although nowhere near as frustrating as losing the post itself.

* * * *

Update. Horrible update. Now all the duplicate posts are gone... but so are all the comments. Thousands of comments. All our discussions. All gone.

I cannot even think about this being permanent. We are still working on it. Hoping to post another update soon.

* * * *

Upperdate. The 1,000 most recent comments now appear through the comments feature in my dashboard. They do not show up on any posts, but at least they exist. At some point, I could copy them into comments in each post, noting who originally posted them.

Comments from the earliest posts of this blog still exist. That's an enormous relief.

Comments on posts between July 2016 and November 2018 no longer exist. I take some comfort in the fact that I wasn't writing that much during this period!

This has happened because Blogger's backup and restore function does not work properly.


help nominate tommy douglas as the face of the next $5 bill

There's a movement to put the face of Tommy Douglas on the next Canadian $5 bill. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

And wouldn't it be a kick in the pants to those who seek to privatize our health care system?

Go here to nominate Tommy Douglas.


listening to joni: #12: dog eat dog

Dog Eat Dog, 1985

Front Cover
We've reached a milestone: a Joni Mitchell album I don't like.

No, that's a cop out. It's not merely that I don't like Dog Eat Dog. It's that Dog Eat Dog is not good. It's a really bad album.

All musicians, all artists, create clunkers sometimes -- especially if they're experimenting and expanding. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, David Byrne -- musical giants all, and all have released albums that aren't very good.

And although it pains me to write this, Joni is not the exception.

I stopped reading David Yaffe's biography of Joni while I was writing this blog series, so I don't know the history behind Dog Eat Dog. (I will go back and finish the book.) I don't know if Joni was pressured to try a more commercial sound, or if she genuinely wanted this album to sound and feel the way it does, or if perhaps the final result didn't reflect her intentions. The overall effect is that of a failed project, of an artist trying to be something they're not.

Back Cover
On Dog Eat Dog, Joni takes a break from writing about personal truths -- love, trust, betrayal, loneliness, being true to oneself, struggling with relationships -- to write about the larger world. Most of the lyrics are topical and political. But although Joni has written politically-themed lyrics in the past, an album's worth of that material didn't work.

The lyrics come off as prosaic, obvious, and preachy. Joni comments on the religious right, consumer culture and materialism, famine caused by misuse of resources, even the spectre of nuclear holocaust. But none of it works. There's no poetry, no flow.

The songs that aren't topical are even worse. "Good Friends" is a duet with Michael McDonald, known principally as the voice of the reconstituted Doobie Brothers. In the era of Dog Eat Dog, McDonald's voice was a mainstay of commercial radio, so at the time this song seemed like a blatant play for commercial viability, and a failed one. Now it's just awful. Even McDonald's backing vocals are a jarring thumbprint obscuring everything else in the mix.

Why would Joni want to dilute her most beautiful and versatile instrument by linking it to a one-note hack? (McDonald supplied some prominent backing vocals for Christopher Cross and Kenny Loggins. Enough said.)

The only passable song on the album is the final track, "Lucky Girl," a jazz ballad. But it's not worth the effort to get there.

Saxophone great Wayne Shorter plays on this album, but his masterful sound has been produced down to a dull, anonymous wash.

For the CD, images of dogs or wolves are
superimposed on the lyrics.
I honestly can't find anything good to say about this album. The lyrics are thin, hackneyed, and obvious. The arrangements are thin and dull. The production is straight out of '80s Central -- synth, drum samples, barely the sound of real instruments. (Thomas Dolby, Joni? Really?)

Bad critic comment of the album

This pains me... but I agree with it. Rob Tannenbaum, writing in Rolling Stone:
It's not surprising that Joni can't unravel world politics in a couplet the way she could a romance, but it is disappointing that after a three-year silence, her social criticisms are merely the sort of bloodless liberal homilies you would expect from Rush.
The album cover

Inside the LP
Here's a bright spot: I do like the album cover! Apparently the cover was supposed to be a large painting Joni had done:
"Dog Eat Dog," for instance, had a large canvas, 10-foot-by-5, all dogs, God dog, Jesus dog, you know, and racial dogs in conflict and so on. I sold that painting in Tokyo. Geffen told me that, "Okay, Joan, we know you're an artist, but stick your picture on the cover." So I did a kind of a collage being attacked by wild dogs, you know, and that was fun to do. So there were really two album covers for that. But he wanted my kisser on the cover, so I had to give it to him (laughs). The patron, the great patron, spoke.
To me, the dogs look like wolves, and Joni appears, not being attacked, but raising her arms and closing her eyes in a kind of ecstasy, perhaps singing and dancing. There's more interesting information about this cover here on the Joni Mitchell website.

Other musicians on this album

Basses, Keyboards, Fairlight CMI and Synthesizer Programming - Larry Klein
Keyboards, Fairlight CMI and Synthesizer Programming - Thomas Dolby
Guitars - Mike Landau
Drums and Drum Samples - Vinnie Colaiuta
Percussion Samples - Michael Fisher
Trumpet, Flugelhorn - Jerry Hey, Gary Grant
Saxophone, Flute - Larry Williams
Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone - Wayne Shorter
Bata - Alex Acuna
Vocals - Michael McDonald, James Taylor, Joe Smith, Thomas Dolby, Don Henley

Something I learned

It's much easier to write bad reviews than good ones. When art works, it's incredibly challenging to articulate why and how it works. Ultimately whatever is written about great art will fail to capture its power and beauty. But cataloging the many ways that art doesn't work is way too easy.

I'm sorry that critics have had so much fun at Joni's expense. I didn't enjoy writing this at all.

solidarity with wet’suwet’en land defenders and their allies on the frontlines

Thank you to the Wet'suwet'en people who are courageously defending their land for the greater good of us all.

Thank you to the Kahnawake people who are courageously blocking the rail lines in solidarity.

Thank you to the non-Indigenous allies who blocked the main highway on Vancouver Island, and disbanded only under threats of violence from racist thugs.

Thank you to every person who attended a solidarity protest in cities across Canada.

It's inspiring to see that protest has moved to full-scale civil disobedience. We can't all do it, and we are indebted to those who can.

Shame beyond measure on the Trudeau government for pretending to care about reconciliation. When we doubted Trudeau's sincerity, Liberal Party apologists chided us: give him a chance, he sincerely cares. Have you woken up yet?

Justin Trudeau should never be allowed to speak the word reconciliation again. When he utters the word, everyone in the room should stand up and turn their backs. Everyone should unleash a chorus of SHAME so loud that he cannot be heard.

The pipelines must stop.

Canada must change its relationship with the people whose land this was and is.


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

Let Your Reading Take You Someplace New

Many of you already appreciate the joys of reading.

Reading transports us to other worlds and lets us vicariously experience other lives.

Reading helps us feel less alone, knowing there are other people who struggle with the same issues we do.

Reading helps us explore questions of ethics, morality, spirituality, politics, and culture.

It's been shown that people who read have more empathy and compassion than people who don't. That makes sense, because when we read, we are putting ourselves in others' shoes, which is literally the definition of empathy.

If you love to read, why not challenge yourself to read something different? This year, I encourage you to try reading read three books that are outside your usual comfort zone. In the next few "At Your Library" columns, I will suggest a few tips on taking your reading in a different direction.

Thousands of words in every picture

Many adults have not yet discovered the joys of graphic novels. Graphic novels – books that look like comics – are a unique art form. In graphic novels, the pictures don't only illustrate a story – they help move the story forward. The images in graphic novels convey characters' emotions and inner thoughts. The best graphic novels offer a richer reading experience, by combining words and images.

If you've never read graphic fiction, perhaps start with a graphic adaptation of a book you're already familiar with. You might try the excellent graphic versions of A Wrinkle in Time, The Handmaid's Tale, or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Or you could choose a graphic version of a famous piece of literature that you've never read, or read a long time ago. Moby-Dick, Hamlet, and Wuthering Heights are a few of the dozens to you can choose from.

I really enjoy reading graphic nonfiction. I recently read the graphic version of Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl. Although I've read the original more than once, the illustrated version was still so powerful. The illustrations captured Anne's voice when it was playful, sarcastic, sorrowful, yearning, frightened. The book was true to the original, and yet more than the original. It was truly an enhanced reading experience.

Your Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) has some amazing graphic nonfiction. Some titles I recently saw include Dawn of Time: Creation Myths Around the World by Nel Yomtov, Hey Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction, a memoir by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and They Called Us the Enemy by George Takei, about the experience of Canadians and Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.

If you do read a graphic novel for the first time, I'd love to hear what you thought.

In my next column, I'll tell you about one of my favourite art forms: narrative nonfiction.


and let others do for you: interdependence, and the strength to be vulnerable

"I find it really difficult to ask for help."

I've heard many people say this. I don't know if I ever said this myself, but as a teen and then young adult, I definitely tried never to ask for help, and seldom would allow myself to accept any. When I needed help of any kind -- physical, financial, emotional -- I would feel uncomfortable and deeply indebted, for relatively small actions.

In New York City, where, like millions of New Yorkers, I didn't own a car, if someone gave me a ride home, I would thank them profusely. Years later, living in Mississauga, I offered people rides home all the time, and realized it was not that big a deal. The same goes for being asked to stay for dinner, or being offered a cup of tea or a glass of wine in someone's home. A simple act of friendship or kindness, especially from someone I didn't know very well, seemed like Such A Big Deal.

This is certainly one area where our world makes it more difficult for men. Asking for help is weak, and weakness is for pussies, and men must constantly prove that they are not pussies -- that they are not female. After all, isn't that what all the jokes about men not asking for directions are about?

But people of all genders have issues with this. We want to appear strong and independent. We want to think we are self-sufficient.

Perhaps the biggest and most self-destructive example of this is the shame people feel about accepting social assistance, including using a community food bank. The idea of being needy, of being a recipient of help rather than a donor, is so deeply shaming for so many people, including those who support the idea of social welfare.

* * * *

By my observations, most people want to help others. Finding a wonderful gift for someone you care about, and seeing their face light up with appreciation, or being able to make someone's day easier with a simple errand or help carrying something -- even sharing an umbrella with someone who's getting soaked on a sidewalk -- these things make us happy. It's why we volunteer. Why we advocate for others. It's why we love stories about people buying coffee for strangers, why we rush to donate to disaster relief. We want to help.

How many of us realize that on the flipside of that desire to give, there is an obligation to accept? To allow others to express that human impulse. To give in return that gift of your face lighting up, or the knowledge that you made their day easier.

I now believe that we give by giving and we give by accepting.

I actually think that thought in someone else's words -- Bob Dylan's, from the song "Forever Young": May you always do for others and let others do for you.

"And let others do for you." I've thought a lot about those lyrics. I've wondered, why would Dylan include that in his benediction? (Let's assume in this case it wasn't solely because they fit the meter or completed a rhyme!)

I think Dylan understood that we are mutually dependent on each other -- and that we should be, that it's a preferred state of being. That by knowing how to both give and receive, we are more fully human.

* * * *

I first started thinking about this when I was writing about disability issues. I regularly interviewed people who used wheelchairs, and occasionally other adaptive aids. Most were very independent and valued that independence highly. But here are some comments that stayed with me.

Early on in my foray into this field, a man who was blind and also used a wheelchair said to me, "We place a high premium on independence in our society. I don't find that healthy -- for anyone." (He was a pretty independent guy, too.)

Two, I did a story on recreation options for quadriplegics. A lot of the folks I spoke with had become quads from accidents while ski racing, rock-climbing, motorcycle racing, and other outdoor-adventure activities. Now they were the same thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies, but paralyzed. One of my interviews was with a super-active guy who was a quad, and who continued to scuba, skydive, and whatever else. He said, "People are so funny about this. I say, I scuba dive, and they ask, Do you need any adaptive equipment for that? And I'm like, I'm human, and I'm under water, so, yeah."

Three, on several occasions I interviewed a woman named Brooke Ellison. Ellison is an incredibly smart woman, very engaged with the world, and also a deeply compassionate person. She's a high-level quad, meaning she has very little body functioning, and without modern medical technology, she would not have survived her accident. She graduated with high honours from Harvard University by attending with her mother.

Brooke talked about interdependence. She said that because she was physically dependent on people for all her basic needs, she felt very strongly about giving back. She echoed the visually impaired man I mentioned above, by saying that the whole concept of independence was overrated or maybe misplaced -- that society's premium on independence is somewhat of a facade, because we are all interdependent on each other.

These comments lodged in my mind. Adaptive equipment? I wear glasses. Custom orthotics. Prescription meds. When you think about it, a warm winter coat and gloves are adapative equipment for us humans. Seen that way, how many of us live without any adaptations?

Who among us is not interdependent? I depend on my partner for little things, like opening jars and reaching high cabinets, and really big things... like love, acceptance, and emotional support. I depend on my family and my friends, and I hope they depend on me.

* * * *

I'm going to throw in one more story, or at least the punchline of a story. This happened in the early 90s. I had a bad experience at work, and was dressed-down by a boss at a very vulnerable time -- and I burst into tears. (Still the only time I've cried in front of a boss or supervisor.) As soon as I did, this man's attitude immediately changed. The whole power dynamic of the room changed. We ended up talking more as equals, and the meeting ended on better terms. But I was so embarrassed, and angry at myself. I felt humiliated that I had showed such weakness, that he was able to bring me so low, and I let him see that.

After the fact, I debriefed with co-worker. She surprised me with a completely different take on the incident: "He was coming at you from an inhumane place. You had a human response, and he in turn responded in a human way. You gave him a gift. You helped him recover his compassion."

This made a huge impression on me. (That woman, who I worked with only briefly, then never saw again, had a great impact on me. Who knows who we've helped with a kind word at the right time, in a way we might not even be aware of.)

Which brings us back to Dylan's wish for us: May you always do for others and let others do for you.

These experiences, taken together as something more than the sum of the parts, have caused a change in my attitude towards asking for help. I help people, sometimes deliberately, sometimes perhaps unknowingly. And people help me in much the same way -- and that's the way it should be. They're not necessarily the same people -- and it doesn't matter, because we're all interdependent.

* * * *

This essay has been sitting in drafts for many weeks, and during that time, I had an unusual experience. So if you're still reading, please indulge me in one more story.

Not long ago, totally unexpectedly and in a room full of people, I heard something that triggered my PTSD. This is so unusual for me that I think it might be a first: my PTSD happens in private, in the middle of the night.

Rather than derail this post, I'll save the details of the experience for another post. For now, suffice to say that a stranger showed me great kindness and compassion, and I was able to accept it -- and it felt like a triumph. So much so that I was able to name my fear out loud to others, which was very difficult to do. And as often with the difficult bits, it felt really powerful. I was able to tell other people -- in person, not in writing -- that I had a PTSD episode, and thank them for their help.

And I didn't feel guilty or ashamed or like I had burdened anyone or like I was weak or... anything. And although I was very grateful for the kindness and strength of this woman, I didn't feel embarrassed or indebted.

Then a funny thing happened: people praised my strength. Someone said "You had the strength to be vulnerable."

It's easier to pretend to be strong than it is to be honest. It's easier to run from the feelings -- to lash out, or to drink or drug over them, or to grit our teeth and ride it out -- than it is to stop and allow yourself to feel the feelings, and then be honest about what you experienced.

I'm not a superhero. I've run from feelings, I've lashed out, I've tried to obliterate them, I've done plenty of teeth-gritting. Every human has done this. But a few times, when it felt safe, I've exposed my feelings -- and this was very good.

When I was a child, I was fortunate to visit many wonderful National Parks with my parents. If there was a tour or talk being given by a park ranger, we always went. My father always asked questions. I remember being embarrassed by this: I thought it made him appear ignorant. But my father explained that asking questions is a sign of intelligence -- that when you ask questions, you're thinking, you're making connections, you're being smart. I soon observed that this was true, and I never again felt embarrassed to ask a question.

This is a similar dynamic, a seeming paradox. We associate vulnerability with weakness, but really, to allow oneself to be vulnerable, to be emotionally honest, requires inner strength.

A human gave me the gift of compassion and support, with no questions asked and nothing expected in return. And maybe... maybe I gave a gift that day, too.


pupdate? in which i worry about traumatizing our dog who has zero recall

Cookie does not, will not, come when called.

She is just not interested.

At mealtimes, "wanna eat?" will bring her running. And if she's in the backyard or on the deck, the sound of the clicker and the treat jar will usually work.

But at the beach, she has no intention of coming back to us.

We've done the high-value treats, we've done... everything. The beach is simply too wonderful to leave.

I am Cookie, and I answer to no one.
Last year, on a wet, cold day, I was waiting outside the library for Allan to pick me up. He was late. I knew he had taken the dogs to the beach in the morning, and knowing he soon had to clock in to his own work, I thought he forgot about me.

When Allan showed up, I learned that Cookie was still at the beach! It was getting late, he knew I was waiting, didn't have his phone with him -- so he left (with Kai)! Now he was going to head back to the beach to get Cookie.

I was worried and scared! But a few minutes later, Allan and Cookie came home. Apparently at the beach, Cookie was anxiously trotting around the parking area, looking frightened. She hopped in the car and they came home.

I made Allan promise to never do that again. But after this incident, it appeared something had changed.

Now when Allan needs to get Cookie back in the car, he gets in the car and begins to slowly drive away. Then she appears, sometimes trotting alongside the car until he stops and lets her in.

I had never seen this method myself until yesterday. We had a few hours of sunshine that coincided with a low tide and a day off, so we hustled down to the beach. When it was time to leave, Cookie was completely ignoring us. (She was "fishing", even though it's winter and no fish are visible.)

Allan persuaded me to try it. We put Kai in the car, and I drove slowly to another parking area, adjacent to where we had parked, but maybe 50 metres away, where we weren't visible from the water. I waited there nervously for less than five minutes, then drove slowly back to our usual parking area.

I saw a flash of golden colour. I called her name, and Cookie came tearing towards us, running at top speed, then overjoyed, licking and wiggling with happiness. On the way home, she was very affectionate, almost clingy.

It was very hard for me to do this! Was she frightened? Did she think we had abandoned her?

Or is this just how things work now? Has she simply learned that when she no longer hears our voices or can see us, she should come to the parking lot and look for us?

I don't want her to be frightened! But on the other hand, if it takes hours and hours to collect her, we are seldom going to have beach time.


pupdate: the fence, the beach, and the cuddling that melts our hearts

It's been a while since I updated wmtc readers on the continuing adventures of Cookie and Kai.

Short version: they are doing great. They are healthy, happy, and a constant source of entertainment, not to mention love and affection. But when it comes to dogs, who wants a short version?

The great escape.

Cookie has matured and settled in -- but she is still a wild child, and very independent. I have to lock my closet door, and if I forget she will find a shoe to use as a chew toy. Now that she knows she'll earn a treat for coming inside, she stands on the deck and waits for me to put my hand on the treat jar before trotting in. She's that kind of girl.

You may recall that shortly after we moved in, we discovered that (a) the backyard fence wasn't very good and (b) Cookie was an escape artist. When she first let herself in, we thought it was so cute and funny. But when we forgot to lock the front door and she let herself out, not so much.

So we have a beautiful new fence now, and we keep our doors -- and closets -- locked. Yet despite the new fence and our new lock awareness, she has found ways to escape.

There was one tiny part of the fence that we didn't replace -- a connector between the deck and the main fence. It seemed secure. Wrong. She found a way.

Post-fence, most escapes have involved wriggling under the deck, then finding a way out from there. Cookie would find an area where the wood lattice was thin, or softened from years of rain, and she'd work on dismantling it until she could fit through the hole.

Allan has been covering the whole space under the deck with chicken wire. Once wire is up, Cookie seems to understand that route is blocked.

One time, looking out the window, I happened to see a quick flash of something that might have been Cookie's ear or the top of her head -- in the neighbour's yard. I got outside just in time to see her squeeze under the neighbour's fence and into the street.

Once she's out, she cavorts around with glee, her front paws flying off the ground as she runs. She might as well be shouting, I'm free! Freeee!!!

Inevitably, we end up jumping in the car and driving around to streets she's visited before. When she sees us, she's not the slightest bit chagrined. Oh, look, my ride is here.

This ugly fencing is only under the deck. The new fence is great.

The love bugs.

All our dogs have loved each other, but the affection between these two is unprecedented in our experience. My phone is full of pics like this.

The wood stove + the new bed = puppy bliss.

The beach.

This is their playground. Allan checks the tides and takes them at least once a week, but usually more often.


how do you hold a fork and knife? or, in which i discover my table manners are american

As a child, I was taught to use a knife and fork like this: fork in left hand, securing what you want to cut, knife in right hand, cutting. Put knife down, transfer fork from left hand to right hand, put food in mouth. Repeat.

My mother drilled this into me and my siblings. My family was not overly big on table manners, but taking that extra moment to put the knife down, and transfer the fork before putting food in your mouth, was considered a critical lesson.

I recently overheard two people -- Canadians -- talking about this. One of them said, in mock horror, "Do you transfer?" And the other replied in an are-you-crazy voice, "No, I do not transfer!"

I thought, did my mother teach me wrong? Have I been using some crude, impolite technique to eat my food -- all my life?

I heard this conversation a while ago, and finally remembered to look it up online. To my astonishment, the fork-transferring method of eating is considered American, and the non-transfer method is considered European, or as some people still call it, Continental.

I found various stories on this, such as "Put a Fork in It: The American way of using fork and knife is inefficient and inelegant. We need a new way. in Slate and Business Dinner Etiquette: American vs. Continental Style Dining on Workology.com.

Canadian culture is sometimes British-based and sometimes American-based, and I don't know where fork-and-knife usage falls on the British vs. American spectrum. So wmtc readers, how do you use your knife and fork -- transfer or not transfer?


what i'm reading: the library book by susan orlean

I've been on a "books about books" run lately, beginning with Syria's Secret Library, then Robert Caro's Working, and now I'm finishing the wonderful The Library Book by Susan Orlean.

Orlean is a writer for The New Yorker, which generally means excellent nonfiction. Her book about the canine movie star Rin Tin Tin has been on my List since it was published in 2011. Her 1998 book The Orchid Thief is considered a modern classic. (I read The New Yorker story that led to the book, but have not yet read the book.)

The Library Book, like most quality nonfiction, is many things. It's the story of a fire that destroyed much of Los Angeles' Central Library in 1986, and the mystery of who set the blaze, which was definitely arson. It's a history of libraries, and librarians, and a brief history of Los Angeles. It's also a short history of arson, and library fires, and probably a few other things as well. These many threads are intertwined with a smooth narrative flow and a dash of suspense.

Orlean is always a figure in her own writing. In The Library Book, she brings the reader along as she tours different branches of the Los Angeles Public Library, and discovers how contemporary libraries work -- the people who make them work, and the people who use them. Library workers will recognize all the types, and everyone else will find the characters quirky and entertaining. Through scenes and character sketches, Orleans unpacks the ever-evolving role libraries play in our world.

To say a nonfiction writer has a great eye for detail is a bit of a cliche, but Orlean sets a high standard. Her use of detail brings scenes alive, but the story is never bogged down. Her writing is always so crisp and lively. It's a joy to read.

Most reviews of The Library Book talk about libraries and how we still love and need them, but I figure you get enough of that from me already. But if you love libraries and books and hidden histories, don't miss this one.

what i'm reading: working by robert caro

Fans of Robert Caro rejoiced when we learned that Caro, author of nonfiction histories, was writing a book about his writing process. When the book was published, I'm sure I wasn't the only one surprised by its brevity. At a slim 207 pages, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing is the equivalent of a post-it note for Caro, whose books are often described as tomes.

I read Working over the course of a weekend, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Not only is the subject fascinating, but Caro's warm and genuine voice is truly a joy.

If you read nonfiction and you enjoy history, and you haven't read Robert Caro, you must correct this terrible oversight. Caro's first book, The Power Broker, is considered one of the best nonfiction books of the 20th Century. It is a biography of Robert Moses, who was the most powerful man in the most powerful US city -- a man who was never elected to office and who many people, even many New Yorkers, may never have heard of.

More than a biography, The Power Broker is a history of modern New York City. It's also an examination of how cities are built, how communities are destroyed, and above all, how power is created, consolidated, retained, and wielded. When it was published in 1974, The Power Broker broke new ground in combining painstakingly detailed research with an accessible narrative flow. It is truly one of the great books of our age.

When Caro's Path to Power was published in 1982 -- the first volume of a planned trilogy about Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States -- the reviews were off the charts. I wanted to read it, then as successive volumes came out, and I still hadn't read the first one, I decided I was no longer interested. That's what I told myself, anyway. Why do I need to know so much about LBJ?

The answer, of course, is that these books aren't "about LBJ". Similar to Taylor Branch's "King Trilogy" -- purportedly a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., but actually a history of the American civil rights movement* -- the LBJ books are a history of the United States from 1940 to roughly 1970.

Looking at the US through the lens of LBJ may be particularly interesting, as he embodies the best and the worst of the potential of the US government. Wielding incredible power, LBJ committed some of the greatest acts of any POTUS, and some of the most heinous. He was both a great president and a terrible president. Caro relocated from New York to Texas to write these books.

Caro's legions of fans, including me, don't only love his work -- we genuinely like the man himself. Caro is a warm, modest, and compassionate person who speaks with a strong New Yawk accent and has never forgotten his working-class roots. Although he's a celebrated writer and has mingled with several generations of literati, he still seems like someone you could strike up a conversation with in a city park. Caro does all his own research, working only with his beloved wife, Ina.

Caro's "planned trilogy" of LBJ biographies now contains four volumes, and he's writing the fifth. At 83 years old, the author took time off from his work to give his readers something they've long been asking for -- an insight into his process.

Working is not a full memoir, but Caro says he plans on writing his memoirs after finishing the fifth LBJ book. Because of his meticulous research, Caro's books usually take about 10 years to write. If I believed in prayer, I'd keep Robert and Ina Caro high on my list.

Meanwhile, if you like Robert Caro -- or if you write nonfiction -- or if you read nonfiction -- read this book.

*I've read 2⅔ of this trilogy. The first two books are great. I plan to finish the third one day.


"at your library" in the north island eagle: be "smart": your library can help you keep your new year's resolutions

January is a time for fresh starts and new beginnings. But our best intentions can come back to bite us. How many of us have made grand plans in January, only to see them disappear by February? Change is hard – and personal habits are the hardest to change of all.

A trick that I've found helpful is to create "SMART" goals. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Realistic, and Timely. SMART goals are:

Specific: What do you want to accomplish? "I want to eat healthier" is general and vague. That makes it difficult to achieve. "I want to eat more vegetables" is a bit better. "I will eat one serving of vegetables with dinner, three days per week" is even more specific – which makes it more achievable.

Measurable: How will you measure your progress? Track your progress in a journal, on a spreadsheet, or find an app for your phone.

Action-Oriented: What actions will you take to work towards your goal? What will you need to prepare in advance? Choose goals that you have control over and can change.

Realistic: Chose a goal you know you can achieve. This helps build confidence for future goals.

Timely: Set a start date and a target date. Give yourself a deadline.

You can find more information about goal-setting in several e-resources at the Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL).

Lynda.com: Open Lynda.com and type goal setting in the search. Many videos come up. Each is about four minutes long. Lynda.com videos are professionally made by people with expertise. They are sources you can trust.

Consumer Health Complete has many articles on goal-setting. Not all of them will be relevant, but it's a good place to start. Open Consumer Health Complete and type SMART Goals in the search.

On Hoopla, I found "Goal Setting: Discovering Your Gifts" and "Goal Setting For Faster Success", and "The Big Goals System: The Masters of Goal Setting on Achieving Success". These are all videos that you can download and watch on any device.

To find these and many other e-resources, visit the VIRL website. Go to virl.bc.ca > learn > all databases.

There are books on this topic, too. When I typed "goal setting" into the VIRL catalogue, I found: Make Anything Happen: A Creative Guide to Vision Boards, Goal Setting, and Achieving the Life of Your Dreams (ANF 153.8 LIN), and The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals (ANF 658.4092 MCC). (I'm not sure that "the life of your dreams" qualifies a SMART goal!)

Once you have a SMART goal, your library can help you succeed. Whatever you're trying to do, we have books on the topic. The most common library searches after New Year's are: healthy eating, exercise for beginners, getting out of debt, quitting smoking, drinking less alcohol, and feeling happier. None of these are simple or easy to do. But having the advice of experts can make it easier.

You know my favourite New Year's Resolution? Read more. In January and February, VIRL is hosting the Adult Winter Reading Club. For every book you read, you'll receive one entry in a prize draw. The more you read, the greater your chances of winning. Every VIRL branch will have a prize draw, and there's a grand prize for all of VIRL. Reading more – now that's a smart goal.

Happy New Year from the staff at your VIRL branches on the North Island! Hope we see you plenty this year.


#climatestrike vs my brain: i am struggling with pessimism and hopelessness

I started writing this post in September, after the global Climate Strike.

It was exciting to see that so many people -- millions around the globe -- understand the urgency and are willing to take to the streets. I thought, This is beautiful! This is amazing! ... and This won't change anything. Both at the same time.

I hate writing that. I hate feeling this way.

Along with Climate Strike, there are other positive developments -- extinction rebellion, for example, and an increasing number of civil disobedience arrests, both celebrity and ordinary. This will grow. More people will get involved and actions will become even bolder.

Yet I feel utterly pessimistic about humanity's future. I have lost hope.

Of course I know I'm not alone in that. Anyone who looks at the reality of climate change either cloaks themselves in denial, clings to shreds of hope, or vows to fight on without hope.

For me, this hopelessness is a kind of identity issue. I reflect on my own feelings and think, Is this me?

I've been an activist all my life. Integral to that has been a bedrock belief in the collective power of people's movements to change the world. I don't consider myself an idealist. I focus on the points in history where people's movements have produced change. And they are legion. Activism has re-made the world again and again. I know that, I still believe it, on a local or national level.

But when it comes to climate change, the threat to our entire planet and our species, I don't believe it. And that shakes me.

I still want us to fight, of course. We must fight. We have no choice.

But there is only one real solution to climate change, and that is abolishing capitalism. And to call that a pipe dream is an understatement on the grandest level. The corporatocracy is powerful beyond all measure. The ruling class will stop at nothing to retain profit and privilege.

Google "ways to stop climate change," and you'll find lists of ways to reduce your carbon footprint -- the usual suspects. All good, all completely inadequate, all deflecting attention away from the real issue, that a system predicated on so-called "growth" is unsustainable. That capitalism is destroying our planet and killing our future.

Even environmental groups that understand the need for collective, political action, such as (in Canada) the David Suzuki Foundation, fall well short of the mark. "Unite for bold climate action." "Get politically active and vote."

Yes, we should do both those things. But is there a party planning to restructure our economic system? Is there a party that will risk re-election by taking on the extraction industries? Is there a party that can move beyond window-dressing into a true sea-change of action? No, no, and no.

All around me good-hearted people are working hard to reduce their individual footprints, and working on the local level to do whatever they can. That's all good. Less plastic waste and less mindless consumerism are worthy goals. But while we're carrying our reusable shopping bags and not using straws, on the largest scale, it only gets worse.

My comrades talk about a socialist revolution. But revolution is infinitely more likely to bring some form of authoritarianism -- whether theocracy or military state -- than anything else.

The impossible economics of late-stage capitalism, have (predictably) given rise to a resurgence of xenophobia and fascism. As our world is (literally) burning with the need for cooperative, equitable, sustainable solutions, the ruling class doubles down on the unsustainable, unjust system that brought us to this dangerous place.

I've been struggling with this post, writing and deleting and writing and deleting, because writing this is worthless. No one needs my cynicism and my hopelessness. It does nothing, changes nothing. Cynicism and hopelessness are death-knells for activism, and without activism, we are lambs to the slaughter.

All I can do at this point is quote Gandhi: You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.

Or maybe Beckett is more apt. You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.


happy new year and new decade from wmtc

For the second year in a row, I didn't even bother with the wmtc i hate christmas tradition. I didn't see any shopping fervor, didn't hear or see an onslaught of ads. (Hooray for streaming!)

We put up holiday lights, enjoyed two days off (hooray for vestiges of colonialism!), and "the season" passed quietly. I can't bring myself to say Merry Christmas, but if anybody minds my "happy holidays," they don't show it.

New Year's Eve was even quieter. I did the whole look-back thing in late November and early December, as we passed all the one-year marks of our move west and huge lifestyle change. 

One bit of small-town and remote North Island life did bother me during the holiday season: all the restaurants are closed, and there's no prepared food to buy. If you want to spend a few days holed up at home, you have to plan ahead and cook. I did... but I would have liked a break. This is the price we pay for living in Port Hardy. It's a great bargain.

Allan and I began a new chapter of our lives in 2019, so the fact of the new decade feels almost irrelevant. It will be interesting to see how I'll feel about 2020, as things settle into a routine, and the I can't believe we live here possibly wears off.

That's the small, personal picture. I've been trying to write about the larger picture for months. Coming soon.

The only bad part of 2019: saying goodbye to Diego