an analog breakthrough: in which we play tabletop games and this makes me very happy

In a few recent posts, I mentioned two details of my life that seemed to be in direct opposition to each other. 

One, I want to move further down the path of digital minimalism, spending less time on social media, more time with long-distance friends, and more time with analog pursuits.

And two, I love games of all kinds, especially board or tabletop games* -- but my partner does not. The resurgence of the popularity of board games, and the explosion of new games on the market, has been a source of frustration for me, because of Allan's total lack of interest.

Suddenly, this has changed! Allan has agreed to a games night! Hooray!

At the time of this momentous announcement, the only games we owned were backgammon, Scrabble, and Trivial Pursuit. I did some research to find a selection of games we might like. They needed to be:

- good for two players,

- not super difficult to learn,

- not involve free-form storytelling or lookup tables, and

- last no more than 60 -- or at most 90 -- minutes for a typical game.

After researching online and soliciting ideas from Facebook friends, I purchased:
- Ticket to Ride (European edition)
- Pandemic (original edition)
- Bananagrams
- Qwirkle
- Sherlock Holmes (Baker Street Irregulars edition)

The most-recommended game by far was Ticket to Ride. Pandemic was particularly appealing to me because it's cooperative, rather than competitive. We've played each of those once so far. Both games seemed very complex and were a little daunting at first, but we were able to figure them out and get into the rhythms of play during the course of one game. I'm really looking forward to the Sherlock Holmes game, too. Each edition comes with 10 cases; players search "foggy London town" for clues.

In addition to these analog pursuits, I've also re-instituted Music Night, which we used to do regularly, but fell out of the habit many years ago. Our work schedules give us three nights together each week. My plan is to use one of those for either music or games, alternating every-other week. The plan is also flexible: if we're very engrossed in a series and don't want to skip a night, no harm will be done.

If you have a favourite tabletop game, please feel free to leave it in comments. I probably won't buy any more just yet, but I'm sure I'll want to expand our choices at some point.


* I want to stay away from videogames: I find them unbelievably addictive, and am looking for less screen time, and fewer opportunities for repetitive strain injuries.


a reading plan for 2022, plus how the 2021 plan fared

I'm enjoying my new-ish habit of having a reading plan for the year ahead. I like having the structure and the direction. But I also like -- and need -- to keep it flexible. It's not a reading challenge. No x number of books for the year, no goal at all. I can (and do) read any book I want whether or not it's part of the plan. I'm also not tracking my reading that's not off-plan, although if I really like a book I'll probably write about it. 

So how did the 2021 plan go? Pretty great! The plan is below, with my current comments in italics. The nonfiction is all reviewed on this blog; the fiction is only reviewed if I liked it (with the exception of literary thrillers or literary crime, and the occasional series, which I don't review).


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

Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy, Leslie Brody

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

Janis: Her Life and Her Music, Holly George-Warren

Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, Stephen Kinzer 

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott

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

Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit Read a few essays, will continue.

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

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

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

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


Charlie Savage, Roddy Doyle

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson Read in part, not continuing with trilogy.

The Cold Millions: A Novel, Jess Walter

There There, Tommy Orange

The Resisters, Gish Jen

True Story: A Novel, Kate Reed Perry

Blacktop Wasteland: A Novel, S. A. Cosby Loved!

Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo

The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence 


The Bridge, Bill Konigsberg

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


A List of Things That Will Not Change, Rebecca Stead (miscategorized as YA)

Continuing to read more by: I did not read more by any of these authors, but I did pick up books by all of them at Powell's in Portland.

Frans de Waal

Carl Safina

Robert Sapolsky

Giving my brain a break between nonfictions

Martin Beck, Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall Read nine of ten, probably should have stopped after seven.

Parker, Donald Westlake as Richard Stark

Long-term goals I did none of these! And two other long-term goals aren't even on this list. Perhaps I should choose one long-term reading goal for the year.

Orwell still to read: three titles

Dickens still to read: four titles

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

This year's plan is much longer. This is probably a bad idea.


A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott

Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit essay collections

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

A Primate's Memoir, Robert Sapolsky

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, Andrés Reséndez

Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, Annalee Newitz

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe

The Turning Point: A Year That Changed Dickens and the World, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst 

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, David Grann

Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal, Mark Bittman

Galileo and the Science Deniers, Mario Livio

Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Always, John McWhorter

Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg

The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine, Janice P. Nimura

Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship, Nadine Strossen

Permanent Record, Edward Snowden

Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades Revisited, Clinton Heylin

The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison "Promiscuous" Women, Scott W. Stern 

Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America's Cheap Goods, Amelia Pang

Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century, Charles King

The Escape Artist, Helen Fremont

The Last Job: "The Bad Grandpas" and the Hatton Garden Heist, Dan Bilefsky

Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America, Scott Borchert

Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, Barbara Ehrenreich

Fiction (will likely try many of these without reading... or so I think)

Charlie Savage, Roddy Doyle

The Resisters, Gish Jen

Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo

Razorblade Tears, S. A. Cosby

Marley, Jon Clinch

Christine Falls, John Banville as Benjamin Black

Stay and Fight, Madeline ffitch

Gods With A Little G, Tupelo Hassmann

The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa

The Electric Hotel, Dominic Smith

Against the Loveless World, Susan Abulhawa

Simon the Fiddler, Paulette Jiles

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Moon of the Crusted Snow, Waubgeshig Rice

Damnation Spring, Ash Davidson

The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris

The Weight of Ink, Rachel Kadish

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich (I've read all her early books, but have not read her recently)


One of Us is Next, Karen M. McManus


Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood, Gary Paulsen

The Leak, Kate Reed Perry

Kaleidoscope, Brian Selznick

Pumpkinheads, Rainbow Rowell 

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, Jason Reynolds

To give my brain a break

Harlem Detective series, Chester Himes (Have read two of eight.)

John le Carré re-reads (Read one this year... so good!)

Long-term goal

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

* * * *

One thing is obvious: this plan is too long! I hope I can use it without feeling defeated, because I can't narrow it down any further right now.


what i'm reading: digital minimalism: choosing a focused life in a noisy world

Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World is an essential book for our time. Newport argues -- quite persuasively -- that smartphones and their constant connection to social media are degrading our quality of life. He offers ample proof of this, and offers a plan that readers can use to break their smartphone and social media addictions.

Newport is not anti-technology. He's a professor of computer science and is not suggesting a return to pre-modern life. He acknowledges and enjoys the convenience that mobile phones and mobile computing have brought us.

His issue is strictly with the smartphone, which is purposely designed to foster dependence or addiction, and which now enables us to be connected to the chatter of social media at every waking moment.

Newport calls for us to be more intentional about how we use technology, to ensure we are cultivating rich lives offline, rather than let our digital lives swamp us. He simply wants us to make our own choices, instead of letting app designers make them for us. He writes:
One of the first things that became clear during this exploration is that our culture's relationship with these tools is complicated by the fact that they mix harm with benefits. Smartphones, ubiquitous wireless internet, digital platforms that connect billions of people—these are triumphant innovations! Few serious commentators think we'd be better off retreating to an earlier technological age. But at the same time, people are tired of feeling like they've become a slave to their devices. This reality creates a jumbled emotional landscape where you can simultaneously cherish your ability to discover inspiring photos on Instagram while fretting about this app's ability to invade the evening hours you used to spend talking with friends or reading.
We didn't sign up for this

Much of Newport's argument is framed around the issue of autonomy. Most of us didn't see the vast technological change of the digital age until it was upon us.
These changes crept up on us and happened fast, before we had a chance to step back and ask what we really wanted out of the rapid advances of the past decade. We added new technologies to the periphery of our experience for minor reasons, then woke one morning to discover that they had colonized the core of our daily life. We didn't, in other words, sign up for the digital world in which we're currently entrenched; we seem to have stumbled backward into it. 
This nuance is often missed in our cultural conversation surrounding these tools. In my experience, when concerns about new technologies are publicly discussed, techno-apologists are quick to push back by turning the discussion to utility—providing case studies, for example, of a struggling artist finding an audience through social media, or WhatsApp connecting a deployed soldier with her family back home. They then conclude that it's incorrect to dismiss these technologies on the grounds that they're useless, a tactic that is usually sufficient to end the debate.
The techno-apologists are right in their claims, but they're also missing the point. The perceived utility of these tools is not the ground on which our growing wariness builds. If you ask the average social media user, for example, why they use Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, they can provide you with reasonable answers.
Each one of these services probably offers them something useful that would be hard to find elsewhere: the ability, for example, to keep up with baby pictures of a sibling's child, or to use a hashtag to monitor a grassroots movement.
The source of our unease is not evident in these thin-sliced case studies, but instead becomes visible only when confronting the thicker reality of how these technologies as a whole have managed to expand beyond the minor roles for which we initially adopted them. Increasingly, they dictate how we behave and how we feel, and somehow coerce us to use them more than we think is healthy, often at the expense of other activities we find more valuable. What's making us uncomfortable, in other words, is this feeling of losing control—a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day, such as when we tune out with our phone during our child's bath time, or lose our ability to enjoy a nice moment without a frantic urge to document it for a virtual audience.
We all know people who can't hold a face-to-face conversation without checking their phones, who interrupt conversations to answer texts or read out items from their feed, who seemingly cannot enjoy a moment without putting it on Facebook or Instagram. Most of us know people who are online almost every waking moment. Many people -- more than will ever admit it -- disappear into social media for large parts of their days. We also spend more time on social media than we realize.
NYU professor Adam Alter, whom I introduced earlier in this book, details a typical story of such underestimation in [his book] Irresistible. While researching his book, Alter decided to measure his own smartphone use. To do so, he downloaded an app called Moment, which tracks how often and how long you look at your screen each day. Before activating the app, Alter estimated that he probably checks his phone around ten times a day for a total of about an hour of screen time.
A month later, Moment provided Alter the truth: on average, he was picking up his phone forty times per day and spending around a total of three hours looking at his screen. Surprised, Alter contacted Kevin Holesh, the app developer behind Moment. As Holesh revealed, Alter is not an outlier. In fact, he's remarkably typical: the average Moment user spends right around three hours a day looking at their smart-phone screen, with only 12 percent spending less than an hour. The average Moment user picks up their phone thirty-nine times a day.
As Holesh reminds Alter, these numbers probably skew low, as the people who download an app like Moment are people who are already careful about their phone use. "There are millions of smartphone users who are oblivious or just don't care enough to track their usage," Alter concludes. "There's a reasonable chance they're spending even more than three hours on their phone each day."
We all have reasons that we use social media. Newport argues that although our reasons may be valid, and we do derive some value from social media use, the quality of our social media interactions is very low and adds little to our lives. When you drastically cut down your social media use, once you get accustomed to new habits, you may notice that you don't miss it. Whether you spend 20 minutes on Facebook or Instagram, or 40 minutes, or 60 minutes, you come away with the same low value. And for many people, those shallow, low-value interactions have gradually come to replace more meaningful interactions.

In a section about "solitude deprivation" -- the name describes the problem -- Newport writes:
A good way to investigate a behavior's effect is to study a population that pushes the behavior to an extreme. When it comes to constant connectivity, these extremes are readily apparent among young people born after 1995—the first group to enter their preteen years with access to smartphones, tablets, and persistent internet connectivity. As most parents or educators of this generation will attest, their device use is constant. (The term constant is not hyperbole: a 2015 study by Common Sense Media found that teenagers were consuming media—including text messaging and social networks—nine hours per day on average.) This group, therefore, can play the role of a cognitive canary in the coal mine. If persistent solitude deprivation causes problems, we should see them show up here first.
And this is exactly what we find.
My first indication that this hyper-connected generation was suffering came a few years before I started writing this book. I was chatting with the head of mental health services at a well-known university where I had been invited to speak. This administrator told me that she had begun seeing major shifts in student mental health. Until recently, the mental health center on campus had seen the same mix of teenage issues that have been common for decades: homesickness, eating disorders, some depression, and the occasional case of OCD. Then everything changed. Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety.
She told me that everyone seemed to suddenly be suffering from anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. When I asked her what she thought caused the change, she answered without hesitation that it probably had something to do with smartphones. The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media. She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. It seemed clear that the persistent communication was somehow messing with the students' brain chemistry.
Of course, there may or may not be a connection between the sharp rise of anxiety in young people and smartphone use: a correlation does not indicate a causal relationship. But a correlation does mean it's worth thinking about and exploring. Because really, can spending nine hours a day connected to social media be healthy?

A potential solution: a values-based philosophy

In Newport's views, a few "life hacks" and a little willpower are inadequate tools to address this issue. He offers a program -- first, a foundation of values, then a set of principles derived from those values, then a collection of practices that rest on those principles, and finally, a three-step process to put the system into place. This is one thing I like and admire about Newport's work: it is values-based. I've come to learn that good leadership, good work -- indeed, a good life -- stems from choices that are grounded in our own values. 

I also like Newport's recognition that a one-size-fits-all plan is impossible. He acknowledges our individuality and our unique needs, writing more from the perspective of "here are some things that are working for some people, which you may want to try," rather than a rigid prescriptivism. This helped me think about the specifics of my own life, and how I might become more intentional in my time use.

One reason I enjoyed this book so much is that Newport's attitude aligns very nicely with my own. I have always been very protective of my time, very intentional about how I use it. As a young adult, I earned my income three different ways, while cultivating my fledgling writing career, being an activist, and having a social life, and a romantic life. I needed to be highly disciplined about how I used my time. Once I developed good practices, I learned to be less strict with myself, but I never stopped being very intentional in how I spend my time.

From the publisher:
Digital minimalists are all around us. They're the calm, happy people who can hold long conversations without furtive glances at their phones. They can get lost in a good book, a woodworking project, or a leisurely morning run. They can have fun with friends and family without the obsessive urge to document the experience. They stay informed about the news of the day, but don't feel overwhelmed by it. They don't experience "fear of missing out" because they already know which activities provide them with meaning and satisfaction.

Now, Newport gives us a name for this quiet movement, and makes a persuasive case for its urgency in our tech-saturated world. Common-sense tips like turning off notifications, or occasional rituals like observing a digital Sabbath, don't go far enough in helping us take back control of our technological lives, and attempts to unplug completely are complicated by the demands of family, friends, and work. What we need instead is a thoughtful method to decide what tools to use, for what purposes, and under what conditions.
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A few years ago, I wrote about The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu. Wu traces the history of the "you are the product" business model, and ends with a impassioned argument against social media. Digital Minimalism is the perfect companion to The Attention Merchants

I highly recommend reading them both -- in succession, if possible. Wu's focus is on data mining: the massive corporate profits that are reaped through our personal information, along with our blithe disregard of the impacts of those transaction, the world it has created. Newport's focus is on the personal impacts, and how this trend has eroded and degraded our quality of life. 
Together, the two books build an extremely strong case against smartphones and social media.

Digital minimalism, personal edition

I notice that I ended my review of The Attention Merchants with this:

By the time I finished the book, I challenged myself to take a holiday from social media and reclaim my own attention span. Some of you know that because of my health issues, I struggle with low concentration. Perhaps the effects are exaggerated for me... or perhaps not. I want to spend less time with little bits of information scrolling in front of my eyes. When it comes to information, I want quality over quantity. I'm experimenting with it now, but I'm not sure I'll ever go back

Some of the changes I made did turn out be permanent (I said goodbye to Twitter), others did not (I re-installed the Facebook app on my phone). Now I'm assessing my current habits with Newport's advice in mind, and thinking about whether I want to go a few steps further.

My inability to concentrate has been, at times, a serious problem. In my late 30s, when I was first bringing my fibromyalgia under control, I learned that, on some days, it was best to stop trying. I'd go for a swim, make a cup of tea, and watch re-runs of "Xena: Warrior Princess". That was all my brain could handle. I seldom experience that severity any more, but I've learned to work in short bursts with frequent "micro breaks". 

This is why I came to social media relatively late, when most of my friends were already using it. I knew it would be a big time suck, a giant distraction. Believe it or not, when home internet was first introduced, I resisted signing up. I already felt so distracted and pulled in so many different directions -- and now the biggest distraction would be in the very place where I was trying to write. Having an offline place to write, separate from the connected computer, would have gone a long way.

I'm already practicing pieces of this philosophy

About than 10 years ago, I realized I wasn't reading as many books as I wanted, as I had done in the past. I was consuming a lot of information -- news stories, magazine features, blogs -- but I wasn't spending enough time with the purposeful, quiet reading that is a foundation of my enjoyment of life. No longer being able to read at night (because of fibro) had robbed me of my book-reading time, and I had gradually and unintentionally replaced that with reading online.

I wanted to read more books. To that end, I made two changes. I decided to consume less news, and to set aside time to read during the day. 

I immediately felt positive benefits. I felt happier! I felt calmer! I felt more like myself. I have continued that practice ever since. I am less informed on day-to-day happenings, but I don't care. I'm still informed on issues, which is what matters to me, and I am still aware of big stories, although I seldom know many details about them (and don't care). More importantly, I am reading more books. 

This is the perfect example of the kind of practice Newport espouses: reducing a digital habit in order to free up more time for an analog pursuit of greater personal value. 

Next steps

For now, I've decided not to adopt Newport's three-part plan, as I feel I'm already on the right path, but many of his examples of digital minimalist practices sparked ideas for my own life. I am making (and tracking) certain changes. When I assess whether these changes bring me more focus and contentment, I'll know if I want to go further. 

- I'm only using social media at designated times and for a designated duration.

- Since all my friends and family (except my partner) are now long-distance, I'm creating opportunities for more meaningful, quality interactions, rather than only seeing friends through social media or the occasional email thread (although email is an important piece of staying in touch). I've invited friends to have regularly scheduled Zoom calls, whether monthly or every other month.

- I got in a habit of keeping my phone handy while watching movies or series when I'm alone at night (on nights my partner is working). I'm in a few group text threads that are fun and important to me, and I'd end up chatting in the thread during shows. Now I'm trying to keep my phone charging in another room while I watch. This is the same dynamic that led me to give up game-threading, even though I valued and enjoyed our Red Sox community: I wanted to stop multi-tasking, and focus more on the game/movie/show. Multitasking makes me feel busy and scattered, the exact opposite of why I watch shows and baseball.

- We're going to try for one screen-free night each week, alternating between a music night and a board game night.

- I've identified my main analog enjoyments (besides reading) and I will ensure that I spend time with at least one, every week.

To the critics

I'd like to respond to two common criticisms of Digital Minimalism.

In many of Newport's examples, digital technology is used to facilitate some analog activity -- for example, watching YouTube videos to learn how to build something. Many people claim this is ironic and hypocritical. It is neither. 

Again, Newport is not anti-technology. He fully recognizes and enjoys the many ways technology can improve our lives. He merely wants us to use technology intentionally, in ways that improve our lives and strengthen real connection. 

In my own life, reading e-books, writing this blog, spending time with long-distance friends on Zoom or WhatsApp, and taking piano lessons online, are all part of digital minimalism -- the intentional use of technology to support activities that give my life meaning. I'm sure you have many examples in your own life.

The second criticism is that Newport himself does not use social media, and never has. People claim that someone who has never used social media is not qualified to write about it or make judgements. One-word response: research. Newport has done extensive research into how and why people use social media. He probably knows more about why people use social media than most people who use it.


take a social media human rights challenge: write for rights 2021 #w4r21

Advanced planning is no match for the calendar! Despite my early preparation, December 10 -- Human Rights Day -- still caught me off-guard. I haven't reviewed any cases or set any time aside. 

I recently finished an excellent book called Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. (I have a review in drafts... coming soon-ish.) My usual time crunch plus thinking about this book gave me an idea for a new personal challenge: substitute 15 minutes of social media per day with one human-rights letter, on paper.

Rather than scrolling through my friends' updates and the latest hilarious memes, I'll visit the Write for Rights Canada homepage, choose one case, and write one letter.

I'll do this once a day, every day, for 10 days, until I've written a letter for every case.

I invite you to join me in this challenge.

Why do we need Write for Rights? Look at the case thumbnails

Why is this a good thing to do with your time? Wmtc W4R 2019:
All through this year, I've been struggling with cynicism and despair about the state of our planet and the state of democracy. So even though all the warm and fuzzy reasons I've listed in the past (and below) are true and valid, the most important reason to Write For Rights is deadly serious. The world is seriously fucked up. Many, if not most, of us who care about the world feel helpless in the face of such enormous, complex, and intractable problems. Whether or not we will collectively succeed in making a difference on a global scale, we can each make a difference on an individual scale. Amnesty International provides us with an opportunity to do that.
Why is this a great form of activism? I originally wrote this in 2014, and since then I've been recycling it annually. I tell myself that rather than come up with something new, I'll use the time to Write for Rights. 
1. It's easy. Amnesty makes it really easy to participate. Read, type, send.

2. You can do do it from any computer. No meetings to attend, no schedule to keep. Just more of something you do all the time anyway: typing.

3. It's free. No need to donate money. The most this will cost you is postage.

4. You'll feel good about yourself. Enjoy that warm buzz you get from voluntarily helping other people. There's nothing quite like it.

5. You can choose how much to participate. Write one letter, write two letters, write three. Spend 10 minutes writing or spend an hour.

6. You can choose what to focus on. Write about an issue in your own country. Write about an issue in your country of origin. Write for children, or for women, or for LGBT people, or for workers, or for environmental activists, or for another issue that you care about.

7. You're busting stereotypes. We supposedly live in a selfish age where all we care about is I, me, mine. Challenge yourself to say it ain't so.

8. It works globally. Every fight against injustice begins with someone shining a light in a dark place. Be that light.

9. It works locally. When political prisoners are released, they often attest to the difference letters from strangers made in their lives: that knowing they were not forgotten helped them survive.

10. You enjoy your own human rights every day. Why not use them to help someone who can't? It doesn't take much time. It's not difficult to do. And it works.
If you're joining W4R from Canada, these are the cases being highlighted this year. I really appreciate that Amnesty Canada always includes a human rights violation taking place at home. These usually involve Canada's unacceptable treatment of Indigenous people. This year, however, it focuses on Prime Minister Trudeau's obstruction of global vaccine equity.


get ready for write for rights 2021 #w4r21

Write for Rights, Amnesty International's annual global human rights campaign, begins on December 10. I like to think of W4R as a month-long event, and generally spend the month of December -- and often part of January -- writing my letters. 

Amnesty recently sent this:

5 ways you can get ready to Write for Rights on or around December 10!  

Get the cases: Read their stories, watch the videos, sign the online actions and send tweets to get warmed up. 

Find a local event: Join a virtual or socially distanced event near you — several are happening this week — or host your own

Join the Canada-wide Virtual Marathon: Drop in between 12:00 pm-8:00 pm EST on Friday, December 10th to write letters and hear from special guests, including people we're supporting in current and past Write for Rights campaigns. Details to come!

Check out more resources: Get the letter-writing guide, sample letters and materials for young people.

Show your solidarity: Join the photo solidarity action in support of Bernardo Caal Xol and the threatened Maya Q’eqchi’ communities he represents.  

Here's how I get ready:

1. Block out some time each week to write at least one letter on paper. Letters sent through the paper mail mean more than emails or tweets.

2. Buy international stamps. These can be pricy, but I think of them as a human-rights donation.

3. Check my supply of envelopes, usually two per case, sometimes three.

4. Check on printer ink cartridges.

5. Bookmark this year's cases.

I used to have a sixth step: deciding which cases I would address. Then some years ago, I challenged myself to write a letter for every case, plus at least one solidarity letter to an individual. I've done that ever since.

Stayed tuned for my annual W4R post on December 10.


emergency preparedness: in which climate change plus living in a remote community push this 60-year-old into more responsible adulthood

In all our many years together, Allan and I never had an emergency kit in our home, or anything even approaching one. 

In New York, I never felt the need. Everything was in such easy reach all the time. It seemed nearly impossible to be cut off. We lived through more than one major blackout, and a kit wouldn't have made any difference. Even 9/11 didn't lead me there. 

I've always viewed emergency preparedness as a hedge against anxiety and worry. If it helps you worry less, that's great. Use every tool you can find. But I'm not a worrier, and although I do have some anxiety, it's never about external events that would cause lockdown or evacuation.

When we emigrated to Canada, I saw the big public health campaigns around preparedness, asking everyone to be able to shelter in place for 72 hours. Still, living in a densely populated area full of resources, it never felt real. 

When we moved to an apartment in a high-rise tower with frequent elevator outages, I recognized that we could be stuck on the 19th floor for an extended period of time. I put together a kit of emergency food and water, a flashlight, and batteries. I'm pretty sure Allan thought it was silly.

And then we moved to a small town in a remote region. 

There are frequent power outages. 

There is one road connecting the community to the larger world. 

There is no cell service on the roads between communities. 

We're not in a wildfire area, as it never gets dry here. Of course that could change. But it is an earthquake zone and a tsunami zone. 

And it's on an island. Everything in town is trucked here via ferries from the mainland. 

Recently there have been massive flooding and mudslides in our province, caused by the atmospheric rivers that are part of climate change. Parts of highways have been destroyed.  Thousands of people have been evacuated. Regions have been isolated. And horribly, we all know this is only going to get worse. It's time to be better prepared.

For our drive from Ontario to BC, we bought an emergency kit for the car, and we keep it there permanently. But now I'm adding home kits, too, both for shelter-in-place and a go-bag. 

The home kit is easy. I just need to gather a few things we have anyway, so they're in one place, and buy more emergency food and water.

A go-bag requires a bit more effort. We've settled on buying this from the Red Cross, and adding a few things: cash in small denominations, blankets, a battery-operated radio (and batteries), a few other things. I'm also creating a list of things to take from the house, and putting the list in the kit: medications, dog food, extra leashes, and so on. During an emergency is not the best time to be running around your house trying to remember what you need to take with you.

I'm willing to bet that almost everyone who reads this blog already had something like this in their home, and are amazed and possibly horrified that we do not. But by the end of this week, we will. 

tom morello on the iww and the soundtrack to the good good fight

In October, The New York Times published this piece by musician and activist Tom Morello. I've read it several times, and shared it on social media, and still I can't stop re-reading and listening. When something moves me like that, you know I have to preserve it on this blog.

I am and always will be a Wobbly at heart. I often feel I was born in the wrong era. Rather than sitting across the table and trying to persuade an employer to put a few more scraps in a contract, I should have organized to down tools and bring the sweatshop to a halt.

I'm re-posting Morello's essay here. The original has embedded song clips. Hopefully you'll be able to access it without hitting a paywall.

*  *  *  *


By Tom Morello

Mr. Morello has spent over three decades melding music and political activism as a power guitarist with Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, with the acoustic chords of the Nightwatchman and in protests around the country.

Harmonizing and hell-raising, rhythm and rebellion, poetry and politics, singing and striking. The Industrial Workers of the World — the shock troops of the early-20th-century labor movement — virtually invented the protest song for the modern age.

The I.W.W. was formed in 1905, advocating a militant revolutionary unionism, a cocktail of socialist, syndicalist and anarchist labor theory put into practice. It was always known as a singing union, and its songs were written by hobos and the homeless, itinerant workers and immigrants. I.W.W. songs — like "The Preacher and the Slave and "Solidarity Forever" — looked an unjust world square in the eye, sliced it apart with satire, dismantled it with rage and then, with mighty sing-along choruses, raised the roofs of union halls and holding cells, "from San Diego up to Maine, in every mine and mill."

The goal of the Industrial Workers of the World — or Wobblies, as members were widely known — was revolution, not just winning strikes. Unlike other unions of the time, it accepted all workers as members: Black people, women, unskilled laborers, sex workers, immigrants of every race and creed. It sought to forge "one big union" of the entire global working class and used direct action, sabotage and the power of song in class war against the ruling class. Its reputation as a kick-ass union fueled by kick-ass songs remains the stuff of legend.

"Solidarity Forever" by Tom Morello: the Nightwatchman [click through to original to listen]

Its songs, some more than 100 years old, addressed the same issues facing us today: poverty, police brutality, immigrant rights, economic and racial inequality, militarism, threats to civil liberties, union busting. "Casey Jones (The Union Scab)," "We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years," "Bread and Roses," "Ain't Done Nothin' if You Ain't Been Called a Red" — often set to familiar tunes and popular hymns of the day, these songs united workers from diverse backgrounds under the banner of solidarity. What's the antidote for divide and conquer? Work together, fight together, sing together.

Defiant and hopeful, these songs have an unapologetic mission: to fan the flames of discontent by lifting the spirits of those fighting for a more just and humane planet. The I.W.W. aimed to "create a new society within the shell of the old," and I hope you can hear that new world echoing here, where song meets struggle.

The Wobbly songwriters also laid the sonic and ideological groundwork for those who followed: Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Utah Phillips, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Nina Simone, Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, Public Enemy, Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine. Without them, there'd be no "This Land Is Your Land," no "We Shall Overcome," no "Masters of War," no "London Calling," no "Killing in the Name."

Much of my career has been one long audition to become a part of that legacy. I'm a union man and an unapologetic musical rabble-rouser. I've been a member of the Local 47 musicians' union in Los Angeles for 32 years, and I'm a proud card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World — it lives on! My mom was a union high school teacher, and the Morellos were hardworking coal miners in central Illinois. The cause of workers' rights is in my blood.

I've been greatly influenced by many of the songs and songwriters who carried that red union card. Playing acoustic protest music under my folk singer Nightwatchman moniker, I've written and sung dozens of tunes that owe a significant debt to this union's remarkable musical history. My song "Hold the Line," from my new album, is an example of how I've tried to carry forward that legacy.

"Hold the Line" by Tom Morello (feat. grandson) [click through to original to listen]

My guide has been Joe Hill, who epitomized the I.W.W.'s anarcho poet warrior. He is my favorite musician of all time, even though there are no known recordings of him playing or singing. He was a tireless crusader for justice through his music, and his jams are a fine starting point for aspiring rebels. Hill was an I.W.W. organizer and a true musical and political revolutionary. He walked it like he sang it. That's why the mine owners and the other bosses out West, and the politicians who did their dirty work, were afraid of him. And in the end, that's why in 1915 he was executed in Utah on a trumped-up murder charge.

"A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over," Hill famously said. His songs ("There Is Power in a Union," "We Will Sing One Song," "Joe Hill's Last Will") are sung today and will be tomorrow.

I've traveled far to pay my respects to the heroes of the I.W.W. I've placed flowers on Mother Jones's grave in Mount Olive, Ill. I've hummed "The Internationale" at the resting place of Big Bill Haywood's ashes in the Kremlin wall. And while on tour in Sweden, I made the hundred-mile trek from Stockholm to Gavle, Hill's birthplace.

I sat by a little tree in the backyard that blooms where his ashes were spread, and I sang "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," written in the 1930s by Earl Robinson from a poem written by Alfred Hayes in the years after Hill's death. The tiny room in the building where he and his family lived now serves as a union headquarters and museum. Fascists bombed the place 20 years ago. After all these years, they're still afraid of Hill; they're still afraid of his songs.

And they should be.

"I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" by Tom Morello: the Nightwatchman
click through to original to listen] 

The songs live on wherever working people stand up for their rights, dreaming and scheming and struggling for something better than what was handed to them. These tunes are still sung on picket lines, at the barricades and through the tear gas haze of Group of 8 protests. They're even more relevant now as workers throughout the country — like those at Kellogg's, Nabisco and John Deere — are striking and taking to the picket line.

The I.W.W.'s mighty music of equality, justice and freedom is a reminder of struggles won and lost, as well as the battle hymns of struggles to come.

So get out there and start creating that new world. Maybe learn some of these world-changing jams. Then write some of your own.


some things i've learned: notes from becoming a better version of myself

"Getting older sucks. You'll see. I didn't feel that way at your age either..." The first time I heard this, I had just turned 30, and I've been hearing it ever since. Well, now I'm 60, and I still don't agree.

I don't hate aging. I don't fear it. I embrace it. 

There are definitely downsides -- and advanced old age can be a terror for many. But the older we get, the better we understand ourselves, the more we know what we want out of life and can focus on how to achieve that. Growing older -- that is, continuing to live -- gives us more opportunity to become a better version of ourselves.

To reinforce this belief, I've always done a kind of mental and emotional stock-taking, a reflection on what I've been learning. Some of the learning was intentional: tackling a mental habit that was causing unhappiness, working on relationships, and the like. Much was in response to lessons life threw at me.

I dug out some old notebooks, and decided to share what I found with wmtc readers. I've organized them by decades of life. And just for fun, I added in italics major life changes as they occurred. I've also omitted a few changes that I deemed too personal for this blog. (I do have boundaries!)

I was thinking I might use something like Piktochart to make this into a timeline.


The biggest project of my 20s was separating from an abusive parent. I did this through therapy, hard work, and steely resolve, with the support of my partner and my other parent. 

Also in my 20s:

Realizing with certainty that I didn't want children

Owning my identity as a writer

Left full-time work; began writing fiction

Began living with my partner

Adopted our first rescue dogs

Writing: young-adult fiction

Paid work: childcare, proofreading, plus many short stints doing other things (data entry, personal assistant to an artist, probably six other things I've forgotten)

Activism: grassroots pro-choice group


In my 30s, I consciously stopped spending time with people just for something to do. Life's too short (and too busy) to spend it with people that bore you and with whom you can't be fully yourself.

It was a big decade:

Owning my writing process, proving myself (to myself) as a writer

Coming out as a rape survivor

Realizing my potential as an activist 

Transforming my relationship into full adulthood: embracing radical acceptance

Recognizing myself on the eating disorder spectrum

Recognizing all-or-nothing thinking

Moved from Brooklyn to Washington Heights

Health issues; finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia

Writing: magazine features, educational videos, teen "high-low" nonfiction, monthly column

Activism: youth centre; public speaking about sexual assault

Paid work: legal document production; writing. Also teaching at youth centre and alternative high school, part of team organizing a March on Washington


Committing to taking better care of my physical health (late 30s-early 40s) 

Learning to let go of conflicts and disagreements: "the power of walking away"

Learning to ask for and accept help

Reducing or eliminating all-or-nothing thinking

Left New York City

Emigrated to Canada

Writing: children's nonfiction books, magazine features, blogging

Activism: abortion access (Haven); war resisters (War Resisters Support Campaign)

Paid work: legal doc-pro, transcription, writing

Graduate school (late 40s)


Realizing my leadership potential, learning how to be an effective leader

Embracing self-forgiveness

Accepting that PTSD is permanent

Recognizing intergenerational trauma in my original family

Still learning how to ask for and accept help

Completed library degree for career change (early 50s)

Moved to the west coast; relocated to remote community on Vancouver Island (late 50s)

Writing: blogging

Activism: labour, trade unionism

Paid work: library worker, librarian, library manager



I used to imagine there would be a time when I was "done" -- where there would be a final and finished version of myself. Ha! I'm pretty sure that's called death. I wonder what my 60s will bring.

*  *  *  *

One thing I haven't embraced about aging is the covid-related trend of natural hair colour. In fact, I've doubled down on a bolder look with this purply red. My natural dull brown sprinkled liberally with dull gray? No thank you! I'm helping to keep a stylist employed.

I offer this picture of myself as part of some recent and ongoing learning: trying to be less camera-shy.


what i'm reading: poisoner in chief: sidney gottlieb and the cia search for mind control -- plus a few thoughts on conspiracy theories

Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction. It is impeccably researched -- nearly every page yields another revelation -- but written in a clear, accessible style, a true page-turner. The story it unfolds is utterly fascinating. It is also horrifying, nauseating, and nightmarish. If it were fiction, you would never believe it. 

You might know something about MK-ULTRA and the secret histories of the CIA. 

Perhaps you've heard of Operation Paperclip, through which the United States rescued Nazi war criminals, gave them new identities and cushy jobs in NASA, IBM, and elsewhere. The excellent series "Hunters" on Prime introduced many to Paperclip.

You may be aware of Frank Olson, a CIA employee who was unknowingly dosed with LSD, which led directly to his death. Most recently, Errol Morris' "Wormwood" deals with this, as have many "60 Minutes"-style investigations. 

I knew these general outlines. That turned out to be the proverbial tip of a very large and hideously evil iceberg.

From the early 1950s to at least the mid-1970s, a tiny group of men within the CIA, led by Gottlieb, conducted research into biological and chemical weapons, experimenting on human subjects who lives were considered expendable. 

Without informed consent from their subjects, and usually without the subjects' knowledge at all, these CIA men tortured people (and to a lesser extent, animals) by feeding them LSD and applying other techniques of psychological torture. This went on for decades and involved thousands of vulnerable people -- drug users, prison inmates, psychiatric patients. Gottlieb also invented deadly new poisons and ways to secretly administer them, with the goal of assassinating foreign leaders. The program was known as MK-ULTRA.

As one of these pseudo-scientists later admitted, in MK-ULTRA the phrase "unwitting subjects" was a redundancy. At best the subjects were coerced. In one long-running and horrific episode, prisoners in a federal penitentiary were fed LSD daily for 15 months. Their participation was secured with the promise of heroin -- near-constant LSD use in exchange for a fix. Other victims of MK-ULTRA were psychiatric patients who believed they were accessing legitimate mental health treatment. Almost every victim was left damaged. Many lives were destroyed. Many people died.

Dosing unsuspecting citizens with LSD was only part of the fun. Gottlieb developed untraceable poisons that would cause death days after ingestion, so as to avert suspicion. The CIA had planned to use one of these poisons to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the elected prime minister of newly-independent Democratic Republic of Congo -- but Belgium assassinated Lumumba before the CIA plans could be carried out. Gottlieb created poison-laced cigars for the purpose of assassinating Fidel Castro, but the cigars never made it to Castro's compound.

The MK-ULTRA crew released clouds of gas into the fog over the San Francisco Bay -- rehearsal for an anthrax attack that might one day be unleashed on another country. They worked with a violent, drug-addicted organized-crime boss, who procured sex workers, to observe (through a one-way mirror) the effects of LSD on sex. They performed thousands of dangerous, useless drug experiments, often on the most vulnerable people.

The men of MK-ULTRA -- and the predecessor operations, called Artichoke and Bluebird --  operated with absolute carte blanche and with zero oversight. They spent whatever they wanted, to do whatever they wanted. 

There was one singular justification for all these actions: the fear of Communism. During the height of the Cold War, these CIA men believed that the Soviet Union had unlocked the secrets of mind control, and that this asymmetrical knowledge was a dire threat to the US. To them, this torture masquerading as scientific experiments was vital to national security -- indeed, to national survival. 

There was absolutely no evidence that the Soviets were doing anything like this -- and none has ever been discovered. The beliefs of Gottlieb and his men were based on fiction and fear, which mushroomed into elaborate fantasies. And those fevered fantasies were used as justification for whatever schemes they dreamed up.

No one in MK-ULTRA was ever punished. Indeed, many were honoured and celebrated and enjoyed great privilege. Gottlieb later fancied himself a persecuted victim.

One often hears that some heinous practice must be understood in context of the times. Domestic violence. Slavery. Child labour. It was a different time! You have to understand! We didn't know it was wrong! I call bullshit. Of course the men of MK-ULTRA knew what they were doing was wrong, thus the need for extreme secrecy. In declassified documents, MK-ULTRA insiders note that secrecy was essential, because their actions might be received badly by the media and the public. Yeah.

Kinzer is a brilliant writer, who creates gripping nonfiction. I've read his book Overthrow, which tells stories of US-led "regime change" from Hawaii to Iraq, and I'm interested in several other of his titles. Poisoner in Chief is a triumph of research. Gottlieb destroyed his MK-ULTRA files -- itself a federal crime -- but for indefatigable researchers, traces remain. Kinzer steers clear of all woo-woo -- unlike Gottlieb, whose experiments included the use of magic tricks, psychics, and post-hypnotic suggestions, "Manchurian Candidate"-style.

Kinzer concludes the book with a moral and ethical reckoning of Gottlieb and MK-ULTRA, and its toxic legacy. In its stated goals -- mind control -- MK-ULTRA was a failure. Gottlieb discovered that a mind could be destroyed, but it could not be replaced. In another, terrible sense, MK-ULTRA was a great "success": the techniques developed through this program became torture protocols employed by the US in Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Guantanamo Bay. 

Kinzer makes it very clear: there is a direct chain of events and rationalization from the war criminals like Kurt Blome and Shiro Ishii (see below), through Sidney Gottlieb, all the way to Abu Ghraib. There are now laws mandating government oversight of the CIA, but those nominal provisions can always be trumped by the magic words: national security

Poisoner in Chief is also a biography of Gottlieb, an unusual man who chose an extremely unusual life. The child of Holocaust survivors, raised in an Orthodox Jewish household in the Bronx, Gottlieb struggled with a club foot and a severe stutter. He never fit in with the CIA brand of starched shirts and WASP pedigrees. For many decades he lived what would later be called "off the grid," embracing a simple life that included raising goats, meditating, and folk dancing. All while dreaming up new ways to surreptitiously test LSD on vulnerable people.

Content warnings galore

Many episodes in this book are difficult to read and to think about. 

The early chapters of Poisoner In Chief document biological, medical, and chemical war crimes, as context for what would come next. Naturally I am aware of Nazi human experimentation. However, I had never heard of Shiro Ishii, a sadistic Japanese scientist who led the torture and slaughter of tens of thousands of Chinese people in the remote region of Mongolia. Kinzer gives a brief warning before describing in two concise paragraphs the most heinous human experimentation and torture I've ever read about. 

The US helped most of these war criminals either set up shop in the US or escape to South America.

A few thoughts on conspiracy theories

Reading this book brought to mind many thoughts about the use and misuse of the words "conspiracy theory".

For decades, the CIA conducted secret mind-control experiments involving feeding LSD to hundreds of unsuspecting American citizens. If you didn't know this was true, would you believe it? It certainly sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory.

I've written about this before: "conspiracy theory" has become an elastic label used to discredit nearly anything that seems outlandish and improbable -- and anything that questions an official version of events. I am most interested in this in the context of the terrorist attacks of September 11.

To be sure, there are many wacky ideas that are pure bunk. But read this book. Then tell me, is hiring a few fanatics to fly planes into buildings -- or to look the other way while those plans were made -- so much worse than what was done through Bluebird, Artichoke and MK-ULTRA?

September 11 was a much greater public spectacle, and that spectacle was used to justify untold horrors and abuses, both within the US and around the world. MK-ULTRA was conducted literally and figuratively behind closed doors. The latter is a proven fact. People who question the former are ridiculed as "truthers" and ignored. (A bit of Orwellian irony: the word truth as a pejorative.) 

The most common response to the 9/11 truth movement -- now thoroughly discredited for the  mainstream -- is summed up by this statement: "They wouldn't do that"

"They" have spiked breakfast cereal in orphanages with radioactive material. "They" have released clouds of gas into the fog over San Francisco. "They" maintain secret sites around the globe where people are tortured, and their bodies disposed of. "They" have kidnapped and assassinated elected leaders and replaced them with governments more sympathetic to US business interests. "They" have done all this and much more.

Does it mean that every government theory, no matter how far-fetched, is true? Of course not!

Does this mean that all or most US elected officials are involved in such dastardly doings? Of course not! 

But do small, secret groups within the government organize shocking and grievous events? They do. 

And when official stories, seen in context, make no sense, should they be questioned and examined? 

Since the journalist Seymour Hersh first revealed MK-ULTRA in 1974, there is now supposedly more federal oversight of the CIA. But the same imperatives that justified the earlier secrecy -- whether genuine, invented, believed, or some combination of those -- has not gone away. Then it was the fear of Communism. Now it is the fear of terrorism. 

On the face of it, saying that some people within the US government had knowledge of the attacks of September 11 before they occurred, and that people deep within some faction of the CIA were involved in the planning of the attacks (or paid the people who did the planning) seems bizarre and crazy. But once one confronts the mountains of evidence with an open mind, and sees the massive inconsistencies and elisions in the several official stories, it seems anything but. They wouldn't do that is not much of an argument.

Victims of MK-ULTRA, such as Frank Olson's family and James "Whitey" Bulger, were disparaged and ridiculed. But they were right. 

I wrote about this in-depth here: two words, part one, two words, part two. (This is dated one month before all the comments are wiped out!) 

You also may be interested in this wmtc series "a 9/11 discussion". (Two notes: former screen names L-girl and redsock have been changed to "laura k" and "allan". And the comment discussion here was amazing... and is now gone.)

A quote from the above:
To me, at this point in history, knowing all that we do, to say, "Sure they did this, and this, and this, and this (on and on on), but there's no way they would do that" -- and in saying so deny (or refuse to credit) the mountains of very well founded suspicions and/or evidence, instead choosing to believe that thousands of coincidences all took place at the same time -- and do you know that even the official govt version of 9/11 has changed several times? -- is beyond naive.

9/11 is the singular event from which their entire agenda has flowed and upon which it has been justified -- and by which hundreds of millions of dollars of profit are being reaped. For that reason alone -- not to mention justice for the victims and survivors -- it deserves particular and impartial scrutiny. But it hasn't gotten that. The govt has done everything in its power to prevent impartial parties from scrutinizing it.

And good people of all stripes dismiss any govt complicity as impossible, because it's too terrible to think about. And it is, but the truth has to come first. I don't think you're a Pollyanna, because I shared your views at one point. But the more I read, the more inescapable the conclusion became.


11.11 readers' advisory meets "at your library" in the north island eagle

Celebrate and Commemorate Remembrance Day with a Good Book or Three

Readers have told me they enjoy the themed booklists I’ve shared. Remembrance Day is an occasion to share another list. The Great War, as it was known at the time, has inspired countless authors, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters. Many authors have used the horrors of World War I as a lens to explore issues of war and the scars it leaves on all involved. Here are some excellent titles that may be of interest.

Title: Regeneration, The Ghost Road, The Eye in the Door (The Regeneration Trilogy)
Author: Pat Barker
What you’ll find: These novels, written in the 1990s by British novelist Pat Barker, were inspired by the real-life memoirs of soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon. They are widely thought to be among the best historical fiction of our time.

Title: A Farewell to Arms
Author: Ernest Hemingway
What you’ll find: This 1929 novel is a classic for a reason. It is told in the first-person by an American serving as a medic in Italy, and explores war, love, courage, resistance, and so much more. A rich and deeply moving book.

Title: All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
What you’ll find: This is often called both the greatest war novel of all time, and the greatest anti-war novel of all time. It is even more poignant for being told from the German point of view. 

Title: Birdsong
Author: Sebastian Faulk
What you’ll find: This family saga follows two parallel plots: a British soldier at the front in Amiens, and his granddaughter who is trying to understand his experiences, 60 years later. This book is lushly romantic, yet also deeply realistic.

Title: The Absolutist
Author: John Boyne
What you’ll find: Set in the trenches, this novel explores passion, jealousy, heroism, and betrayal. It’s chock full of tension and suspense, and a very surprising ending.

Title: The Winter Soldier
Author: Daniel Mason
What you’ll find: A young medical student enlists in the war effort, expecting heroism. Instead, he finds a desolate, freezing outpost, and decisions that will haunt him for a lifetime. A gripping saga of war, medicine, love, and redemption. 

Title: Fear
Author: Gabriel Chevallier
What you’ll find: This gripping novel is based on the author’s own experiences as a nineteen-year-old soldier in France. First published in 1939 – and banned until 1950 – it speaks to the vast gulf between the public, official view of war and the lived experiences of those who suffer through it. 

Title: At Night All Blood Is Black
Author: David Diop
What you'll find: This story of a Sengalese soldier serving with the French forces, explores some surprising themes of vengeance, responsibility, and shame, along with racism and colonialism. It is unsparing and very graphic, also brutally honest and riveting.

Title: A Duty to the Dead
Author: Charles Todd
What you’ll find: This is the first book in a series featuring Bess Crawford, whose belief in honor and responsibility leads her to volunteer as a battlefield nurse. Her promise to fulfill a soldier’s dying wishes draws Bess into murder, intrigue, and tragedy, and tests her determination and courage.


See also:

11 people on war

11 anti-war books

11 anti-war books part 2

11 anti-war songs

Robert Fisk: Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?


what i'm reading: harlem shuffle, exciting new fiction by colson whitehead

I've been reading Colson Whitehead since his debut novel, The Intuitionist, caught the attention of critics in 1999. With every successive title -- each entirely different than the previous one -- I've loved and admired his writing more. This blog is full of posts about Whitehead's work and how much I love it.*

When Whitehead burst into popular consciousness with the masterpiece The Underground Railroad and the even more remarkable The Nickel Boys, I had one of those silly proud moments, when the world suddenly discovers your private fandom. Here is a truly great writing talent with tremendous versatility, discipline, and courage, and now he is being recognized on the scale he deserves. Bravo!

Now, after the two disturbing, hard-hitting, novelistic explorations of American history from a Black perspective, Whitehead has returned to doing what he did previously: dazzling readers with yet a different genre. 

I am the perfect audience for this book. I don't read genre fiction, but I love literary detective, crime, spy, or legal thrillers -- the genre plus something more. Graham Greene, Donald Westlake, Patricia Highsmith. I haven't read a huge number of these, but I adore them. 

Then there's New York. For a time I read so much New York City historical fiction that I overdosed and had to kick -- until City On Fire, my favourite fiction in many years, brought me back. Harlem Shuffle indulged my love for historical New York. 

I also love books with a strong sense of place. Late-1950s, early-1960s Harlem is practically a character in Harlem Shuffle

All that, plus it's written by one of my all-time favourite writers. So clearly, take this rave review with a heaping spoon of loving bias. You may well read it and think, very nice, but... what's all the fuss about? That's fair. I say that about fiction all the time. 

But if you read it, and you do love it, I hope you'll put Sag Harbor, Zone One, and Apex Hides the Hurt on your list, too.

* * * *

I never read reviews of books that I know I'm going to read anyway. I love to start a book completely fresh, without even reading the jacket blurbs, so it unfolds exactly as the author intended. Now that I've read Harlem Shuffle, I'm skimming some reviews. This first paragraph from The Guardian is a beauty.

For more than 20 years Colson Whitehead has delivered novels notable for cultural satire, racial allegory, genre expansion and quirkiness: The Intuitionist, Sag Harbor, Zone One, The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer #1), The Nickel Boys (Pulitzer #2). In his eighth novel, Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead offers a literary crime saga that is as delicious as it is nutritious, a much lighter meal than his previous two novels, which emerge from the real-life atrocities of slavery and a brutal reform school in the American south. Whether in high literary form or entertaining, page-turner mode, the man is simply incapable of writing a bad book.

I also loved this bit from The New York Times review.

Whitehead's sweet, sweaty, authoritative, densely peopled portrait of a Harlem in near perpetual summer is the most successful part of the book. Had I not known Whitehead was a talented shape-shifter, I — as an outsider to Harlem — would have believed he had only ever written about this setting. 


* In chronological order:

great writers on new york, July 15, 2004 (one of my earliest posts!)

more from colson whitehead, same day!

colson whitehead writes in brooklyn, March 3, 2008

what i'm reading: apex hides the hurt, December 21, 2010

what i'm reading: sag harbor by colson whitehead, March 3, 2012

what i'm reading: zone one by colson whitehead, July 15, 2012

what i'm reading: invisible man meets the zombies of zone one, a little lit crit, July 27, 2012,  with a little follow-up at the end of this post, July 28, 2012

what i'm reading: john henry days by colson whitehead, September 15, 2012

what i'm reading: the underground railroad by colson whitehead, October 29, 2016

what i'm reading: the nickel boys by colson whitehead, September 5, 2019

(And I've just noticed that in the 2019 post above, I also gathered all these posts!)


"at your library" in the north island eagle: commemorate remembrance day with a good book or three

Celebrate and commemorate Remembrance Day with a good book or three

Readers have told me they enjoy the themed booklists I’ve shared. Remembrance Day is an occasion to share another list. The Great War, as it was known at the time, has inspired countless authors, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters. Many authors have used the horrors of World War I as a lens to explore issues of war and the scars it leaves on all involved. Here are some excellent titles that may be of interest.

Title: Regeneration, The Ghost Road, The Eye in the Door (The Regeneration Trilogy)
Author: Pat Barker
What you’ll find: These novels, written in the 1990s by British novelist Pat Barker, were inspired by the real-life memoirs of soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon. They are widely thought to be among the best historical fiction of our time.

Title: A Farewell to Arms
Author: Ernest Hemingway
What you’ll find: This 1929 novel is a classic for a reason. It is told in the first-person by an American serving as a medic in Italy, and explores war, love, courage, resistance, and so much more. A rich and deeply moving book.

Title: All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
What you’ll find: This is often called both the greatest war novel of all time, and the greatest anti-war novel of all time. It is even more poignant for being told from the German point of view. 

Title: Birdsong
Author: Sebastian Faulk
What you’ll find: This family saga follows two parallel plots: a British soldier at the front in Amiens, and his granddaughter who is trying to understand his experiences, 60 years later. This book is lushly romantic, yet also deeply realistic.

Title: The Absolutist
Author: John Boyne
What you’ll find: Set in the trenches, this novel explores passion, jealousy, heroism, and betrayal. It’s chock full of tension and suspense, and a very surprising ending.

Title: The Winter Soldier
Author: Daniel Mason
What you’ll find: A young medical student enlists in the war effort, expecting heroism. Instead, he finds a desolate, freezing outpost, and decisions that will haunt him for a lifetime. A gripping saga of war, medicine, love, and redemption. 

Title: Fear
Author: Gabriel Chevallier
What you’ll find: This gripping novel is based on the author’s own experiences as a nineteen-year-old soldier in France. First published in 1939 – and banned until 1950 – it speaks to the vast gulf between the public, official view of war and the lived experiences of those who suffer through it. 

Title: At Night All Blood Is Black
Author: David Diop
What you’ll find: This story of a Sengalese soldier serving with the French forces, explores some surprising themes of vengeance, responsibility, and shame, along with racism and colonialism. It is unsparing and very graphic, also brutally honest and riveting.

Title: A Duty to the Dead
Author: Charles Todd
What you’ll find: This is the first book in a series featuring Bess Crawford, whose belief in honor and responsibility leads her to volunteer as a battlefield nurse. Her promise to fulfill a soldier’s dying wishes draws Bess into murder, intrigue, and tragedy, and tests her determination and courage.

"at your library" in the north island eagle: halloween is spooktacular at your library

Halloween Is Spooktacular at Your Library

Halloween is almost here, and with almost everyone in the North Island vaccinated, people will be exchanging their everyday masks for spooky ones, making costumes, and trick-or-treating again. Your library is part of the Halloween fun.

Haunted Vancouver Island for Kids (author reading)

Tweens, teens, and the “senior kids” will want to tune in on October 26 for a special virtual program: Haunted Vancouver Island for Kids. 

Award-winning author Shanon Sinn will host a special young people’s edition of “The Haunting of Vancouver Island”. Sinn will introduce some of VI’s favourite ghosts and supernatural beings – and reveal the truth behind their legends. Sinn is a celebrated local author who belongs to the British Columbia Ghosts & Hauntings Research Society and Paranormal Studies and Inquiries Canada, and researches hauntings and supernatural events. 

This special virtual event takes place 6:30-7:30 pm, and you can join on any device. To get the Zoom link, email kids@virl.bc.ca. If you need help getting started, ask at your favourite library branch. Sinn’s visit is intended for people 9 years old and up.

Spooky Scavenger Hunt

For the younger kids, we have a Spooky Scavenger Hunt in the children’s area of every library branch. Every child who participates is entered in a draw to win a book prize.

We know kids love scavenger hunts, but did you know they’re a fantastic literacy builder? Scavenger hunts teach kids to recognize shapes, colours, and word, and build memory and problem-solving skills. 

If you’re not a frequent library user, the Spooky Scavenger Hunt is a great excuse to stop by. Your little one can have some educational fun, and you can pick up a book and a DVD. It’s a free and easy way to add a little something special to your day.

Halloween Phone Holders with 3D printing

Did you know that VIRL offers 3D printing, available to everyone with a library card? 

If you’ve never heard of 3D printing, or you’re curious to try it, the Halloween Phone Holder challenge is a great time to start. You’ll need to sign up with TinkerCAD (www.tinkercad.com), a free website that teaches you how to design files for 3D printing. It’s not as difficult as it sounds! 

After you design your Halloween creation, submit it to VIRL’s Creativity Commons for printing. If you’re interested in this but don’t know where to start, contact Creativity Commons at cc@virl.bc.ca or 1-877-415-8475. 

Halloween Storytimes at Port Hardy Library

This month storytimes at Port Hardy will have a Halloween theme. Join us any morning – or every morning! – at 10:00, Tuesday through Saturday, for an in-person storytime. Storytimes build literacy skills in so many ways, and it’s a great way to get into the habit of making the library a part of your child’s life. 

Spooky books and movies for all ages

Reading spooky stories and watching slightly scary movies is a Halloween tradition at many homes. Your library is your go-to for a fun family event. 

Log in to our the VIRL website at home, or visit your branch in person, to order Halloween-themed books and DVDs. If you have internet at home, Kanopy Kids is chocked full of high-quality kids’ entertainment. Find Kanopy at virl.bc.ca > read watch listen > streaming movies TV & DVDs. You can watch on any device, and it’s free with your library card. For help getting started, visit or call your favourite VIRL branch.

"at your library" in the north island eagle: back-to-school: your library can help

Back-to-School: Your Library Can Help

With the kids back to school, both parents and students need all the help they can get. Your library has a wealth of resources to help families succeed.

The Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) has a wealth of e-resources that will come in handy for all types of research and reports, at every grade level. 

Solaro is a great resource for test preparation and study, specifically designed for the BC curriculum. On Solaro, you can find math, science, and language arts for grades 3 through 12. It’s very customizable, so you can tailor your study to exactly what you need. Homeschool families and students in traditional classrooms will both find Solaro fun and useful. 

Getting set up with Solaro is a two step process. First, find it through the VIRL website and enter your library card number. You will be assigned a username and password. Then, download the Solaro app, put in that username information, and you’re good to go. 

Solaro isn’t the only BC-centric learning tool that your library offers. The Encyclopedia of British Columbia is the definitive reference work on the province. It contains more than 4,000 entries, plus more than 1,500 photos, maps, charts, and tables, plus audio and video clips. It’s reliable and authoritative – a real go-to for research.

KnowBC contains more specialized information about our beautiful province – birds, plants, shells, and marine life. There are fascinating articles about hidden histories, such as the first Black pioneers of the province, the BC labour movement, and the history of First Nations fishing in this region.

Explora for Kids is a kid-friendly research database, featuring a huge range of topics and subjects. It’s great for homework, reports, and simply to answer questions. Younger kids – grades K through 3 – will want to use PebbleGo. Both are reliable, trustworthy sources.

Find all of these by visiting virl.bc.ca > learn > all databases, or learn > kids. 

Teens have even more choices when it comes to e-resources. Visit virl.bc.ca > learn > teens > homework help for teens. Whether a teen is exploring a topic they’re passionate about or researching a project, they’ll find resources here.

Parents need support, too! Your library has books to offer guidance, suggestions, advice, and support to help parents succeed in their most important jobs. Whether it’s homework help, anxiety, identity issues, bullying, decisions about college or university, health and nutrition, or just about anything else you can think of, your library is your go-to source for information. Let us help you find support. It’s confidential, and it’s free. Give us a try.

"at your library" in the north island eagle: literacy skills are essential in our world

Literacy Is All Around Us

September is Literacy Month, a time to recognize and celebrate all the many ways literacy improves and enhances our lives.

As you go about your day, you use different forms of literacy all the time. Looking on Google Maps for directions. Following a recipe. Planting a garden. Reading food labels in the grocery store. Choosing a new tool for a project. Paying your bills. Taking the proper dose of medication. Looking on the internet for how to fix a problem – then watching a video and following directions. Every one of these tasks, and a million more, involve multiple literacies.

Of course to do any these things, you must be able to read and write. In our society, being literate is not optional. No matter how a person earns a living, having basic literacy skills is a must. But traditional literacy – reading and writing – is only the beginning.

Numerical literacy is the ability to use numbers for every day life – to read a price list and understand how much something costs, to make a budget, to understand a timecard at work.

Digital literacy means being able to use technology to access information, solve problems, and make your life easier. 

Together, these three literacies form a foundation of core literacy skills that every person in the 21st century needs. 

Contrary to what many people think, digital literacy is not a yes-or-no, on-or-off proposition. There’s a very wide spectrum of digital literacy, and most people fall somewhere in the vast middle: they have some limited skills. A mark of high digital literacy is our comfort level with learning new digital skills. Do you enjoy and embrace new technologies, or do find new technology scary and confusing? If you fall into the second category, you have a lot of company! 

Often we encounter stereotypes around literacy. Young people are supposedly all tech savvy, and all seniors are supposed to be baffled by technology. Men are supposed to be more numerically literate – “better at math” – than women. Guess what? False, false, false! 

Many young people lack access to technology. They know how to use their phones, but can they use Word to create a resume, can they download an e-book? On the other hand, many seniors thrive in the digital world. (Apparently as of my last birthday, I’m now a senior myself!)

As a librarian, I have a special interest in two other forms of literacy: health and media.

Health literacy means being able to communicate with health-care providers, follow instructions for medications, and find quality health information, to name just a few examples. The Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) has some great health resources, and we’d love to help you use them.

Media Literacy means being aware of and understanding the messages we get from all kinds of media – internet news, TV shows, movies, videogames, magazines. Someone who is media literate understands the difference between an advertisement that’s trying to sell something and impartial information. They can distinguish a solid source from a scam. It’s not always easy to do!

It’s not hard to see how digital literacy, media literacy, and health literacy are inter-related. How do we find good information? How do we separate facts from opinions? What media can we trust? Librarians can help you evaluate sources and sort through fact from fiction.

When you want to know more about the world, to learn a new skill, or pursue a new hobby, your library is the perfect place to start. The library is your home for all things literacy. We can suggest resources to get you started. And of course, our help is always free of charge.