what i'm reading: john steinbeck and me

I recently read Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Souder, part of my new-found interest in biographies over the past few years.* 

Instead of reviewing the book, I thought I would write about the presence of John Steinbeck's writing in my life -- its history, its influence, the connection I feel. 

The book itself is quite good, but I assume it's of interest only to readers of John Steinbeck. Possibly to people who like biographies of writers? I don't know. Personally, I'd be very unlikely to read a biography of a writer whose work I didn't read or didn't like. If the topic is a good match for you, it is a good book.

For me, it's an obvious choice: my shiny new hardcover copy was a birthday present from my partner. 

Steinbeck's writing has had a huge affect on me. It influenced my desire to travel, my need to write, and my worldview, from an early age. 

To travel, to write, and to fight

My introduction to John Steinbeck was Travels with Charley, which I read either in late junior high or early high school. We didn't have a huge number of books in our house, and I read everything we owned. My parents had a paperback ("pocketbook") edition of Travels with Charley, and I read it, more than once.

I'm sure I would have loved to travel without this book. But Travels with Charley awakened a desire for a particular form of travel. I dreamt of wandering and roaming backroads, living with no fixed address, living so lightly that everything you need would fit in a simple van. It's something I've always wanted, and yet have never done. I've made (or at least tried to make) many of my dreams come true, but this one -- incompatible with so many other things I wanted -- has remained a fantasy. 

Still, travel has always been a huge passion of mine, and I can credit this book with its awakening.

Interestingly, the other voracious travelers in my life were similarly influenced -- my mother by reading James Michener, and my intrepid grandmother, from watching "I Spy"! (My brother is also an avid traveler, but I don't know if he credits anything in particular.)

Travels with Charley also made me want to write. There is only one other book that I can say that about: S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, my favourite book for countless years, and still so close to my heart, it aches to think of it. Although I'm sure my need to write is innate and was not bestowed upon me, these two books were the spark.

And finally, there is my worldview. 

Both my parents were very progressive. They would have called themselves liberals in those days, but their politics were socialist. My father represented union workers his entire working life; my mother was a proud member of the teachers' union. They were pro civil rights, anti war, hated Nixon, revered people like Cesar Chavez and Eugene V. Debs. (Neither of them ever became conservative, by the way. My mother will still rail against Trump at any opportunity. The only time I ever missed my father was watching Obama's inauguration. He would have loved to have seen it.)

I've always been interested in social issues -- literally all my life, as soon as I was able to understand anything -- and ready to jump on a soapbox at the slightest provocation. I remember having to write an essay in my high school Spanish class, and I wrote against capital punishment. The teacher said that I always took on temas muy importantes. I was embarrassed, because I didn't know what other kinds of issues there were.

So, would I have been involved in social justice had I not read The Grapes of Wrath? Sure. It was in me. But when I read the book one summer while in high school, I suddenly understood my worldview in a more profound way, and I embraced it. The way the story moved me was unique in my experience -- and would remain so for a long, long time.

What moved me wasn't the story of poverty and the dustbowl, or the bigotry the migrant families encountered, or the conditions they endured. It was how people organized to collectively better their lives. It was how the people with the least, were most willing to share, while those with the most hoarded their wealth and purposefully kept others in poverty. It was thinking about what was possible when people organized around a cause and fought for justice. 

It may seem corny or melodramatic today -- or maybe it doesn't, I don't care either way -- but when I first read Tom Joad's "I'll be there" speech, I knew that's what I wanted for myself. Today, it still makes me weep, and take measure of my life.

I've read The Grapes of Wrath three times. It is one of a small number of books that I periodically re-read.** It has never lost its profound meaning to me. 

Why Steinbeck matters

While still in high school, I read most of Steinbeck's shorter novels, and his other "big" book, East of Eden (which I've now learned was his favourite of his own work). Later, as an English major in university, I saw that Steinbeck's writing was not highly valued, at least not in that era. I remember a classmate who was taking a Steinbeck and Faulkner course remarking that Faulkner was so much "better" than Faulkner, because Faulkner was more complex, more difficult to understand, and Steinbeck was almost embarrassingly straightforward.

That sums up nicely why Steinbeck is important, and I why I believe he's worth reading: his accessibility. Steinbeck's language, his meaning, his purpose are available to most readers. You don't need anyone to explain Steinbeck to you. His writing is elegant and profound, but it's not obscure.

I do like many writers whose work is less accessible. But I value accessibility in writing very highly, especially in political work. I may read many writers who "preach to the converted," but the writers I admire most try to reach new minds.


In 1988, Allan and I went to California on our first real vacation together -- San Francisco, a drive down the coast, then to Yosemite National Park. It was a magical trip in so many ways, and one of our stops was the John Steinbeck Library in Salinas. There was a small but wonderful exhibit of Steinbeck memoribilia, including the handwritten first page of The Grapes of Wrath. This visit meant so much to me, more so for having a partner who would understand my desire to go.

In 2002, we did a west-coast baseball trip, driving the Pacific Coast from the Olympic peninsula in Washington State to the border of Mexico. We saw games in five parks; only the Padres weren't playing at home. This time, we visited the National Steinbeck Center, which opened in Salinas in 1998. It's a great place, and I highly recommend a visit if you're nearby. However, the manuscripts that I found so thrilling are now available to researchers by appointment only. I am so fortunate to have seen the little exhibit in the Salinas library before it was subsumed into a bigger, sleeker museum.

Steinbeck reading plan

Mad at the World reminded me of Steinbeck's many other novels, most of which I read a very long time ago, likely in high school. Like my favourite contemporary writer, Colson Whitehead, every one of Steinbeck's books is different. I'm thinking I will re-read the shorter novels in between my other reads for a while. I don't know how this will work. I'll let you know. 


* People whose biographies I have read in the past few years: Frederick Douglass, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, Galileo, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louise Fitzhugh, Janis Joplin, a dual biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (not my first biography of either man), plus graphic novel biographies of Ali, Emma Goldman, and the graphic adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.

** The others are 1984, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. Helprin turned out to be a conservative hack, so I doubt I'll go another round with WT (which is just as well, I've read it twice). City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg will likely pull me back for another round.


gardening and games, but not piano: three things going on with me

Maybe next year: borscht.
It was not a total #gardenfail

You may recall that I tried to plant my little gardenette, as we used to do in southern Ontario, here in northern Vancouver Island. I was not successful.

The area we cleared became well grown over with weeds, and that was fine for now. 

Months later, to my surprise, I spotted some red stalks among the green. Beets! One beet plant survived and grew. I harvested one tiny beet. 

While I was showing the beet to Allan, he spotted a tomato plant growing amid the ruin. This gives me hope! As baseball fans have said for generations: wait 'til next year!


I began piano lessons in March 2020, right after the covid shutdown went into effect. I practiced diligently and consistently for 16 months. As long as I was learning and making progress, no matter how small (and progress was only small), I enjoyed it. 

[Piano posts: why it is interesting and significant that i own a piano, in which i begin re-learning how to play piano, using pianote, reflections on a year of piano lessons by a dedicated (and untalented) student.]

After a year, small, incremental progress became tiny. Minute. Microscopic. Gradually, progress dwindled off, then stopped altogether. I understand about learning plateaus, but this plateau seemed permanent. No matter how much I tried, it seemed I had hit an impenetrable wall. 

Learning is full of frustration. I know that. But in this, I must ask if I've reached the limits of my ability. No matter how much I practiced or what I tried, I was no longer advancing. And because I was no longer advancing, piano went from a difficult but satisfying challenge, to pure frustration. 

In June of this year, I started practicing less, and by July, stopped altogether. 

First I took a little time off, then weeks stretched into months... and I stopped. This winter, I'm going back to jigsaw puzzles.

I have a lifetime membership to Pianote, so I can return anytime. We'll see.

My games addiction is back, big-time

I love games. For me, games of all types are completely addictive. Once I start playing a game I like, time disappears. I always have to drag myself away. 

In my 20s and 30s, I thought that any time I spent playing games was a total waste. I was  freelancing, and maintaining discipline was very important. I used to say I had to be busy at all times to justify my existence, and I was only partly joking. Games were an addiction to be avoided.

After being diagnosed with fibromyalgia (after seven years of misdiagnosis), I gradually came to understand the need for downtime, and built it into my life. I also started recognizing the value of giving myself space for whatever I wanted to do -- without the need to justify it. So here I am.

I'm not a gamer. I don't go anywhere near videogames. Not because I think they're evil or a waste of time, but because it's a door I don't dare open. My brief experiences with videogames led me to believe that if I had a proper game system, I'd never watch a movie or a series again. My series/movie time is relaxing and restorative in a way that videogames wouldn't be. So I don't allow myself to go there.

I very rarely get to indulge my love of board games, as my partner has no interest. Considering all the awesome tabletop games out there these days, this is very sad! I would love to have a weekly music-and-game night. But no.

I love jigsaw puzzles, and have been enjoying great puzzle challenges during the winter for the past few years. (When I complete a puzzle, I post pics Facebook, but have spared wmtc that particular nonsense.) 

In Ontario, during times that I commuted by public transit, I could never concentrate enough to read, so I would listen to music and play games on my phone, mostly hundreds of different kinds of solitaire. Now I have no commute, but somehow I've become addicted to games on my phone anyway: crosswords, anagram games (NYT Spelling Bee and Wordscapes), and 3D puzzle games.

When I began piano lessons, I dropped puzzles, feeling that I don't have time for both. So now, it's back to puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles might drag me away from my phone games.


national day for truth and reconciliation: bearing witness, finding meaning

On September 30, many Canadians will have the day off in honour of a new holiday: National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The holiday was created in response to the continuing revelations of mass graves located beneath the sites of the former concentration camps known as Indian Residential Schools. The remains of more than one thousand people have been found, and thousands more remain undiscovered.

How we choose to honour this day will be up to each of us. On one end of the spectrum there may be mourning and grief, contemplation and resolve. On the other end, an aggrieved, bitter racism. In between those poles there are feelings of helplessness and confusion, platitudes, lip-service and window-dressing, and an excuse for a day off with no meaning at all.

Many Canadians celebrate Remembrance Day with reverence, observing a moment of silence at 11:11, and attending events commemorating Canadians who lost their lives serving in the military. Although (as you may recall) my take on this differs from the official reading, I know that the holiday does have meaning to millions of people. I hope that the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will take on a similar somber meaning. 

Witness Blanket

This week I had the opportunity to bear witness in a small way: my partner and I attended an exhibit of "The Witness Blanket" in Campbell River, about three hours south of where we live, and the closest population centre to our region. The exhibit is of a reproduction of a major installation by the artist Carey Newman. 

Newman spoke with survivors of the Indian Residential Schools, as these concentration camps were called, and visited former sites. He collected physical objects, and incorporated them into a large, carved work. The work lives in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, in Ottawa.

On the museum's website, you can see images and read about eight of the objects that Newman incorporated into the work. I found this one especially sad. Impossibly sad. Sadness too profound to express.

In the image of the Witness Blanket above, you can see a set of horizontal, rectangularly-shaped slots below each panel. Those hold law books

The replica

The Witness Blanket was created in 2015, and was often on tour. It became damaged and in need of restoration. What tours now is a two-dimensional facsimile of the carved work. I hope one day to experience the original carving, although seeing the reproduction was still impressive and deeply moving.

In Campbell River, the Witness Blanket exhibit is hosted by the Laichwiltach Family Life Society, in partnership with the Campbell River Arts Council, the Campbell River Museum, the City of Campbell River, and the Vancouver Island Regional Library. (Laichwiltach is pronounced "lee-kwa-ta".) There was a good video interview with Newman, and, most unexpectedly, a Residential School survivor addressed a small group, speaking about her experiences. That was an unexpected gift.

In this article in the local Campbell River newspaper, you can see more photos of the replica Witness Blanket, including some of the opening ceremony. In one photo, you can see a dancer wearing a traditional button blanket.

There is a Witness Blanket website, but it doesn't seem to function correctly, as well as an app through which you can explore the work and its meaning.

Carey Newman has close ties to our area. His bio reads, in part:

Carey Newman, whose traditional name is Hayalthkin'geme, is a multi-disciplinary Indigenous artist, master carver, filmmaker, author and public speaker. Through his father he is Kwakwak'awakw from the Kukwekum, Giiksam, and WaWalaby'ie clans of northern Vancouver Island, and Coast Salish from Cheam of the Sto:lo Nation along the upper Fraser Valley. Through his mother he is a Settler of English, Irish, and Scottish heritage. In his artistic practice he strives to highlight Indigenous, social, and environmental issues as he examines the impacts of colonialism and capitalism, harnessing the power of material truth to unearth memory and trigger the necessary emotion to drive positive change. He is also interested in engaging with community and incorporating innovative methods derived from traditional teachings and Indigenous worldviews into his process.

September 30, 2021 and beyond

I hope Canadians are seeking out and joining local commemorations, or those offered by their employers, to imbue their day off with meaning. Tomorrow, I am joining a march led by three of the Indigenous communities in Port Hardy. (Of those three, Port Hardy was settled on the traditional Kwakiutl [pronounced "kwa-gi-uth"], territory. Two others Nations, the Gwa'sala and 'Nakwaxda'xw [pronounced "nak-wa-do"] people, were placed here involuntarily, two separate Nations forced onto one reserve, their villages burned behind them.) 

If you have an opportunity to visit the Witness Blanket, even in its current replica form, I think you will be moved and impressed. There are also many books and recordings by survivors, each of their voices bringing us the painful gift of truth.

And of course every Canadian can read the Calls to Action created by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and think about what they personally can do to contribute to Reconciliation.

Reconciliation is not an end goal: it is a process. It's not something governments will achieve, although government has a part to play (one that it is currently and spectacularly failing).

Reconciliation is the responsibility of every person in Canada, every organization, every employer, every family. It's something we must contemplate and consider, and hopefully learn to embrace. As I'm learning from the Indigenous people in my own community, we must walk the path of Reconciliation together, with curiosity, humility, and respect. That is the only way forward.


another federal election, another opportunity squandered #elxn44 #ndp

I haven't written anything about the upcoming Canadian federal election, because what is there to say? The results are depressingly predictable.

We will either have a Liberal government or a Conservative government. 

Both will suck. One will suck worse, and one will appear to suck less. 

In a predictable bit of circular reasoning, a large number of Canadians will not vote for a party whose values they claim to support, because that party is not "electable". Despite imagining themselves as politically savvy, they will choose not to strengthen the party whose platform they support, not to build that party for the future. They will believe they are making a smart choice by not voting for what they want. Instead, they will chose to continue down a worn path that prevents Canada from moving forward.

If the Conservatives win the election, supposedly progressive people who don't vote NDP will blame progressive people who do vote NDP, sneeringly calling us as conscience voters, as if acting on one's conscience is something to be avoided. 

If the Liberals win the election, supposedly progressive people will breathe a sigh of relief, believing rhetoric and appearance over substance and voting record.

People who don't identify as progressive, but who would substantially benefit from an NDP government -- that is, the majority of Canadians -- will not vote NDP, because of mistaken, ill-informed beliefs. These beliefs are supported by the Canadian media, doggedly asking the question that is reserved solely for the NDP: How are you going to pay for that? The question no one ever asks about a military budget. About corporate welfare. About privatization. A question that used to be asked about public healthcare.

There's a reason that, come election time, the Liberals sound like the NDP. In 2021, why not vote for the party that truly supports what the Liberals claim to support?

Only one party supports a national pharmacare program. 

Only one party wants to expand public healthcare to include dental care.

Only one party wants to re-invest in our depleted public sector.

Only one party supports workers.

Only one party truly engages in Reconciliation.

Only one party has a leader willing to call out Canada's institutionalized racism.

Only one party has a plan to address income equality.

Only one party wants to invest in affordable post-secondary education.

I could go on and on. 

But it doesn't matter, does it? 

Until Canadians are willing to do something besides this

nothing will change. 

But that's not really true. There's never a time when nothing changes; change is the only constant. So what changes will we see?

The public sector will continue to shrink.

Income inequality will worsen.

Climate change will worsen.

Housing will become even less affordable.

An increasingly large segment of Canadians will be unable to afford post-secondary education -- and indeed, unable to afford daily life.

I want change. I want a government that wants the same things I want. That's why I vote NDP.


from the archives: all over the world, i tell people where to go

On our recent trip to Oregon and California, I made a note every time someone asked me for directions. 

That may seem like an odd thing to track -- unless you're well-established as a magnet for The Lost. Not the spiritually lost. The physically lost and uncertain.

On this trip, we remembered three times: near the dog park in Berkeley, on a street corner in San Francisco, in a parking lot in Portland. It's possible there were others we didn't note and forgot. We shared a laugh: it still happens.

It is not lost on me that for my second (or third?) career, I chose a profession where I help people find information. I'm pretty sure I used this, in much shortened form, on my graduate school application essay. (Little did I know I could have written gibberish and been accepted. Are you a live body who will pay tuition? You're in!)

Being asked for directions during my first trip to Portland reminded me of an essay I once wrote -- really just a piece of an essay that I tinkered with now and again, back in pre-internet days when we wrote things and sent them to people who might publish them. I'll use this occasion to publish it myself.

Hello, my name is Laura and I give directions.  

I don't wear a button, but I might as well. Everywhere I go, people ask me for directions.  

It is a rare subway trip in my own city that I am not approached. "Does this train go to Grand Central?" "How do I get to Columbus Circle?" It happens just as frequently when I travel. I had been in San Francisco less than an hour when I car pulled up beside me, passenger window rolled down, inquiring face at the window.  In Italy and France, natives and tourists alike asked me the way. On a deserted highway in rural Mississippi, in a tiny village in upstate New York, in the middle of rush hour in Chicago. They pick me out of crowds, cross the street, flag me down. They want directions, and they want them from me.

When I talk about this phenomenon, people think I'm exaggerating. That is, until they spend time with me. An old friend and I were doing errands on the Upper West Side when a woman stopped me: "Is there a crosstown bus on this street?" My friend said, "I see you're still in demand."

I've given much thought to why this is. I suppose, as a short woman, I don't appear threatening or intimidating. Perhaps as an alert city-dweller, I look alert and confident. The very first time I can remember being asked for directions may provide a clue. I was in college -- on the first day of classes, freshman year. I was nervously rushing to class, wondering where on earth I was going and what on earth I was doing, when a young woman tapped my arm: "How do you get to College Hall?" I burst out laughing. "I have no idea!  I'm a freshman!" "Wow!" she said, impressed. "You really look like you know where you're going." Together, we held her map and tried to determine where we were. But it made my day. No, it made my month. Hey, I look like I know where I'm going.

It's a responsibility I take very seriously. If I don't have the requested information, I feel like I've let someone down. (Even worse is the occasional realization that I've given someone wrong directions.) I wait while people search for pens. If the person is interested, I'll give several alternatives. I tailor my directions to their needs: Can they walk a long distance? Are they in a rush? Would they rather save the price of a token, and see the city on foot? More than once, I've told tourists that we were headed in the same direction, and took them myself.

Yes, I have walked around New York City with strangers. And, obviously, I talk to strangers all the time. Aren't I afraid? The answer is no -- and that's probably the biggest reason I am asked for directions so frequently. Contrary to what many people believe, for an adult with common sense, talking to strangers is not a high-risk business. Quickly, expertly and mostly unconsciously, I size up the inquirer, using the cues that we all use every moment of our public lives. How close are they standing? Do they appear to be headed somewhere? Where's my bag, my wallet? 99% of the askers are lost, or at least unsure of the way. When I encounter that 1%, I move away, just like anyone else.

That last paragraph now seems silly and unnecessary. But leaving aside my urge to edit, re-reading this reminded me of two episodes that didn't make it into this draft.

Near Rockefeller Center, a Japanese man stopped me. I had a very hard time understanding his English; his guidebook was in Japanese. I did get that he was looking for a bookstore, possibly a Japanese bookstore? I tried several times to work out what he meant, but finally had to say I didn't know. More than a year later, I saw an article about a famous Japanese-language bookstore in the area (and have since discovered it's part of a chain). I was so annoyed at myself for not being able to help this man! I hope he found the store.

A more amusing episode took place on the subway platform at Columbus Circle. I was on my way to my weekend word-processing job, and a family of four approached me. They were decked out head-to-toe in brand-spanking-new Yankees gear -- hats, t-shirts, water bottles, the works. The dad asked me when the next train to Yankees Stadium would arrive. 

I told him there was no way to know when it would arrive, but if they were going to the Stadium, they were on the wrong platform. "This is the downtown platform. You need to go up the stairs, over to the uptown side," I said, gesturing through the path they should follow. "Then take the D train. It should say 'Uptown and the Bronx'."

To my astonishment, the man replied, "No, this is the train we need. I just want to know what time it is due."

So many things wrong with this sentence! Where to begin!

I wasn't a librarian yet, so I wouldn't have called him sir. But I was polite, far more polite than many New Yorkers would have been. "Hey, I live here, and I go to Yankee games all the time. I promise you, you're on the wrong platform. You need to go over there, to the uptown side. Also, there is no train schedule, especially on the weekend. They come when they come. Also, the game isn't until 1:00. You won't be able to get in the Stadium, and the area will be deserted."

Maybe he couldn't appear to be wrong in front of his kids. Maybe... who knows! But he insisted. And he yelled at me! Seriously, the man yelled: "This is the train to the Yankees! Do you know the schedule??" 

At that point I could only scoff in his face. "Suit yourself." I shrugged my shoulders. "Have a nice day."

My train arrived, and I left. Later I shared a good laugh with a friend who I went to games with. I wonder what happened to that family that day. 

The moral of the story: when a New Yorker gives you directions, don't argue.


labour day 2021: workers want to work less and live more

Lying Flat
We're told there is a labour shortage. Businesses can't find workers. No one wants to work.

Why the shortage exists and what should be done about it are the subjects of much debate, and no small amount of disinformation.

Within this shortage, there are two different streams: one a shortage of workers wanted to perform part-time, low-wage, repetitive jobs, and the other, unfilled positions that come with higher earnings and benefits packages. 

These are different issues, with different causes and consequences -- but they share a root cause: the capitalist work ethic.

Work vs benefits: a baseless claim

There is an idea out there that young people -- so-called millennials -- don't want to work. 

We are told millennials are lazy divas who think work is beneath them. They are immature and irresponsible, so they can't find and keep a job. (This myth also provides an opportunity to blame everyone's favourite scapegoat: mothers.) And of course, the favourite hobbyhorse of the right wing: government aid. People are supposedly living the good life collecting covid benefits. Why work when you can live it up on the gravy train?

No evidence is given for this claim. It never is among people who despise governments that help people, rather than those that strictly to corporate welfare. But in fact, the evidence suggests much the opposite. Economist Paul Krugman asks: 

But have unemployment benefits actually had a major adverse effect on employment? No. State-level job numbers released Friday reinforced the conclusions of earlier studies that found at most a small negative effect.

This time, Republicans inadvertently provided the data needed to refute their own claims. Many red states rushed to cancel enhanced unemployment benefits earlier than their scheduled September expiration. If these benefits were a major force holding back job creation, these states should have seen noticeably faster employment growth than blue states that kept benefits in place. They didn’t.

In reality, much evidence shows that Americans have struggled to access assistance during the pandemic. From The Guardian

Workers across America faced long delays in receiving unemployment benefits as state systems were quickly overwhelmed with the mass influx of applications that caused months-long backlogs. Meanwhile, workers who made errors on their applications, had missing records or had their claims flagged had their benefits stopped – and often had difficulty restarting them once problems were resolved.

About 9 million Americans are estimated to have lost work due to the pandemic but received no unemployment benefits.

Sharon Corpening, 60, a freelance writer in Roswell, Georgia, lost all her work contracts when the pandemic shutdowns occurred throughout the US in March last year.

As a gig worker, Corpening’s initial unemployment application was denied by the Georgia department of labor, until the Cares Act provided pandemic unemployment assistance for gig workers a few weeks later. She spent weeks trying to process her application and encountered issues with the unemployment website, and would sit on the phone for hours daily failing to reach a service representative.

Like thousands of Americans having trouble with their unemployment applications, Corpening joined a Facebook group and got involved in helping others through the unemployment process, advocating for systemic reforms and countering narratives that try to portray unemployed workers as “lazy” and “not wanting to work”.

. . . The impacts were detrimental to workers around the US, who fell behind on rent or mortgage or car payments, experienced utility shutoffs and relied on food banks and assistance programs to feed themselves and their families.

The story above mentions a family that was forced to put their special-needs child in a group home -- putting her health in jeopardy -- because they could no longer afford to care for her at home. It mentions a single mother who lost both her jobs through covid but was unable to access benefits from the state of Florida -- a system that Governor Ron DeSantis admitted was purposely designed to be difficult to access. There must be hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of stories like these all over North America.

Low-wage work sucks... but if it paid better, it would suck a lot less

I'm willing to concede that some low-wage earners might live better on government assistance than on their crappy jobs. If that's true, the problem is not the benefits. It's the jobs.

I can't possibly say this any better than "Canadian writer Lori Fox in her recent essay in the Globe and Mail: I’m one of the service workers who left the restaurant industry during the pandemic. Serve yourself". Fox's essay is well worth reading in its entirety, but here's a teaser.

I was a server for 15 years. When the pandemic struck a year-and-a-half ago, I was one of millions of food service workers – cooks, bussers, hosts and servers – who were furloughed as the world shut down. I’m also among those who chose not to return to the industry when things began to open back up. I’m one of your missing service workers.

Let me shed some light on the “mystery” of this labour shortage: With an abysmally low rate of pay, bad (often erratic) hours, no sick days and near-constant sexual harassment, racism, sexism and queerphobia, working in service sucks.

And yet that hasn’t stopped pundits, and even some restaurateurs, from decrying our lack of good ol’ fashioned work ethic and blaming the government dole for keeping us from returning to our rightful place: tableside, making them money and waiting on our betters.

What has been said about us – that CERB has kept us from re-entering the work force, that we are lazy and unambitious, that we simply don’t want to work – is ridiculous.

It’s also indicative of the way much of society thinks about working-class bodies: as expendable, interchangeable, replaceable parts of a capitalist machine over which it has ownership. Some people not only feel entitled to our labour, but to pay as little for it as possible.

Let’s be clear, then. It’s not that we don’t want to work – it’s just that we don’t want to work a physically demanding job in substandard conditions without benefits for minimum wage. And we especially don’t want to do that during the rising fourth wave of a pandemic. A study published earlier this year found the risk of death during the pandemic increased 40 per cent for food and agricultural workers in California.

Some of your “missing” workers are not missing. They’re dead.

And Fox is writing in a Canadian context, where the average minimum wage is one-third higher -- and in some cases, double -- that in most US states. And Canadian workers have their health care covered. 

Is it any wonder that workers don't want dead-end, repetitive, poorly-paid jobs, where they are treated like crap, their wages stolen regularly, with no benefits and with no possibility of advancement?

Who would want these jobs? Would you?

Being married to your career also sucks, but in different ways

The other labour shortage involves thousands of vacant positions for people with formal education and work experience. 

Our society abounds with fields where professionals -- never called workers, but if you work for a living, you are a worker! -- are expected to put in horrendously long hours, never or rarely take time off, and often when they do, to be on-call. Lawyers, doctors, and all manner of professionals are expected to "pay their dues" by prioritizing their careers over all else. For many, that's a "choice" never ends.

Then there are the workers who are expected to subsidize their employers with unpaid labour -- educators expected to grade papers at home, social workers whose caseloads are a physical impossibility, health practitioners rushed off their feet and worn out, all day, every day. 

All manner of support staff and public servants fall into this category because of chronic understaffing. Staffing needs are constantly sacrificed to the bottom line, whether that is controlled by profit or by the constant pressure to maintain ever-shrinking budgets in an austerity economic climate. 

In so many fields, workers are expected to sacrifice their personal lives, their family lives, and their mental health, because work is always expected to come first.

Lying flat

Writer Cassady Rosenblum was a producer of a major NPR show; she quit her job, left the city of Boston, and now lives with her parents in rural West Virginia. Obviously, a move like that requires a great deal of privilege. But if we care about the needs of all workers -- indeed, of all people -- that includes people who are well-paid, but over-stressed. 

Rosenblum writes:

As of June, there were more than 10 million job openings in the United States, according to the most recent figures from the Labor Department — the highest number since the government began tracking the data two decades ago. While conservatives blame juiced-up pandemic unemployment benefits, liberals counter that people do want to work, just not for the paltry wages they were making before the pandemic.

Both might be true. But if low wages were all that’s at play, we would expect to see reluctant workers at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and content workers at the top. Instead, there are murmurs of dissent at every rung, including from the inner sanctums of Goldman Sachs, where salaries for investment bankers start at $150,000. According to a leaked internal survey, entry-level analysts at the investment bank report they’re facing “inhumane” conditions, working an average of 98 hours a week, forgoing showers and sleep. “I’ve been through foster care,” said one respondent. “This is arguably worse.”

In China, young people choosing to work less and live simply has taken the form of a movement: tangping: Lying Flat.

A generation ago, the route to success in China was to work hard, get married and have children. The country’s authoritarianism was seen as a fair trade-off as millions were lifted out of poverty. But with employees working longer hours and housing prices rising faster than incomes, many young Chinese fear they will be the first generation not to do better than their parents.

They are now defying the country’s long-held prosperity narrative by refusing to participate in it.

Mr. Luo’s blog post was removed by censors, who saw it as an affront to Beijing’s economic ambitions. Mentions of “lying flat” — tangping, as it’s known in Mandarin — are heavily restricted on the Chinese internet. An official counternarrative has also emerged, encouraging young people to work hard for the sake of the country’s future.

“After working for so long, I just felt numb, like a machine,” Mr. Luo said in an interview. “And so I resigned.”

To lie flat means to forgo marriage, not have children, stay unemployed and eschew material wants such as a house or a car. It is the opposite of what China’s leaders have asked of their people.

It's what the ruling class has asked of us for centuries. 

Meaningful work can be a great source of satisfaction and fulfilment. But those of us lucky enough to derive challenge, joy, and fulfilment through paid employment know that even the best work can destroy our lives. The human-resources buzzword "work-life balance" makes it very plain: work is not life. Work is a part of our lives but isn't all of our lives.

And for most workers, work is something that, if we're lucky, pays the bills. 

It's time for a four-day workweek

It's no wonder the movement for a four-day workweek is popping up all over the internet -- not just among us lazy socialists but in the business media.

Think of how much more balanced our lives would be with four days of work and three days for ourselves and our families. Think of how much more productive we'd be if we weren't running down the clock every Friday.

Once upon a time, there was no workweek. There was only work. Workers who wanted to spend their sabbath day resting were told "If you don't come in on Sunday, don't come in on Monday" -- meaning if they took a day off, they would be fired. We owe the five-day week -- a once-radical idea that is now enshrined in labour codes the world over -- to labour activism.

It's time to take it one step further.

We toil in a world that does not support us

There are other reasons for the labour shortage: neither American nor Canadian society offers the supports needed to make working possible.

Child care, a basic need of millions of workers, is either nonexistent or unaffordable. 

Public transit is a disgrace, and many workers cannot afford the costs of auto insurance and maintenance. They spend hours transferring from one overcrowded bus to another. Others who can afford cars spend those hours locked in traffic.

Millions of women still face "double duty" -- working full-time plus bearing all family responsibilities. Although this has changed in past decades, it should have gone the way of the rotary phone. But it is still far too common.

And if it weren't for the ridiculously high cost of housing -- the strange fact that the most basic human need is subject to the for-profit system -- I have no doubt that the labour shortage would be exponentially worse. 

Capitalism, internalized

If the idea of a four-day workweek seems foreign and radical, you are experiencing a symptom of a different pandemic: internalized capitalism. Much as we absorb stereotyped gender norms, we have been absorbing capitalist values throughout our lives.

I've been seeing and enjoying this meme in many places.

[By "feeling lazy," we can assume @therapywithlee means believing we are lazy when we need time off from work -- not "feeling lazy" in a pleasant and cozy sense.]

Labour shortage or learning curve?

Ten minutes into the global pandemic, all the cracks in the capitalist system were exposed. The cracks turned into an earthquake. Now we're surveying the wreckage.

The global pandemic has taught us many lessons. Taken together, the lessons have led to one big conclusion: the system doesn't work.  

What will be done with this knowledge is unknown. And it won't happen by accident. 

The ruling class will line up in force to resurrect and maintain the old order. Workers -- working people, all of us -- could prevent that, but only if we are organized and intentional.

Will we use our covid learning to build a better future? One that values our physical and mental well-being over productivity?

It's Labour Day. Demand More.


the only lesson to be learned from afghanistan: war is a waste

Veterans for Peace protest, 2016
As the US finally ends its occupation of Afghanistan, watching the media obsess on the specifics of the pullout has brought me no end of head-shaking. The violent chaos of the exit makes for sensational images and startling headlines, always good for the business of media. But it's also a shell game, designed to narrow our attention and ask the wrong questions.

Twenty years of occupation and the pullout is the problem? This brings to mind Donald Rumsfeld's response to revelations of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison: banning cameras.

Ezra Klein had a similar thought.

In 2005, two of my colleagues at The American Prospect, Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias, wrote an essay I think about often. It was called "The Incompetence Dodge," and it argued that American policymakers and pundits routinely try to rescue the reputation of bad ideas by attributing their failure to poor execution. At the time, they were writing about the liberal hawks who were blaming the catastrophe of the Iraq war on the Bush administration’s maladministration rather than rethinking the enterprise in its totality. But the same dynamic suffuses the recriminations over the Afghanistan withdrawal.

To state the obvious: There was no good way to lose Afghanistan to the Taliban. A better withdrawal was possible — and our stingy, chaotic visa process was unforgivable — but so was a worse one. Either way, there was no hope of an end to the war that didn't reveal our decades of folly, no matter how deeply America's belief in its own enduring innocence demanded one. That is the reckoning that lies beneath events that are still unfolding, and much of the cable news conversation is a frenzied, bipartisan effort to avoid it.

Focusing on the execution of the withdrawal is giving virtually everyone who insisted we could remake Afghanistan the opportunity to obscure their failures by pretending to believe in the possibility of a graceful departure. It's also obscuring the true alternative to withdrawal: endless occupation. But what our ignominious exit really reflects is the failure of America's foreign policy establishment at both prediction and policymaking in Afghanistan.

"The pro-war crowd sees this as a mechanism by which they can absolve themselves of an accounting for the last 20 years," Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, told me. "Just think about the epic size of this policy failure. Twenty years of training. More than $2 trillion worth of expenditure. For almost nothing. It is heartbreaking to watch these images, but it is equally heartbreaking to think about all of the effort, of lives and money we wasted in pursuit of a goal that was illusory."

Let's widen the lens. Why was the US in Afghanistan for 20 years

Canadians -- incredibly -- believed the "mission" in Afghanistan (no war please, we're Canadian) was for women's freedom! This was perfect for the country's positive self-image, and its apparently unshakeable belief in its military as a force for good in the world. 

In the US, the invasion of Afghanistan was supposedly a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Conveniently forgotten: the invasion was planned well before that date. Like all US invasions, the real goals were corporate interests and imperialism.

The history of multiple invasions and occupations of Afghanistan, by both the Soviet Union and the US, is long and complex, and I wouldn't begin to attempt to unravel it in a blog post. This interview with historian Ali Olomi in Vox makes for interesting reading.

Olomi, who is the host of the podcast Head on History, discussed the US’s funding of some factions of the mujahedeen, or Afghan guerrilla fighters, during the 1970s and ’80s; America’s rolling reasoning for its involvement in Afghanistan post-2001; and whether the US, even without soldiers present, is really gone.

Every US-led invasion carries a veneer of high-minded pretense, whether that is stopping the spread of communism or making the world safe from terrorism. Of course the US doesn't have exclusive rights to this type of propaganda. Since I've read a lot about resistance to "the Great War," Belgian babies and nuns spring to mind. The ruling class has been selling high-minded wars to the populace since time immemorial. Hence the term cannon-fodder.

I recall the testimony of one of the war resisters from our Toronto group. He was the former serviceperson with the highest rank and the most to lose. Stationed on an aircraft carrier, he had plotted the targets they had been ordered to bomb, and overlaid it with the route of a major US-backed pipeline. Voilà, a match! He realized what he and his division were protecting, who and what they were risking their lives for.

I applaud Joe Biden for having the guts to exit Afghanistan. The New York Times notes that, "In the end, the argument that won the day is that the future of Kenosha is more important than defending Kabul." (As far as I can tell, this "argument" was a random Twitter response to a White House tweet.) 

Sadly, the idea that military funds will be redirected to rebuilding US infrastructure and social programs is likely fantasy. If that does happen -- if the US's gargantuan military budget substantially shrinks and those funds are re-directed for the social good -- then Joe Biden will be a president of phenomenally historic stature. 

From my perspective, it's extremely difficult to imagine. But from 2016 on, I've been completely wrong about US politics. Nothing would please more than to be wrong on this, too.


ed asner, rest in power

People of my generation loved Ed Asner for his portrayal of Lou Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", and Allan and I both remember enjoying the spinoff "Lou Grant".*

But in my home, Ed Asner was admired for more than his canny character acting. Asner was a union man. He was president of the actors' union, a visible and vocal supporter of the United Farm Workers, and an outspoken critic of the brutal Reagan regime. With Ralph Waite, Asner co-founded a group of actors that supported human rights issues in El Salvador, where the US was lethally meddling at the time. It is widely believed that Asner's outspoken activism led to the cancellation of the popular, Emmy Award-winning "Lou Grant," and that he was blacklisted from the entertainment business for many years.

In Ed Asner, American SocialistThe Nation's John Nichols writes:
"When we can discuss socialism rationally. It will be as if a heavy curtain has been lifted from man’s eyes.” Those were not the words of Karl Marx or Eugene Victor Debs, though either of those radical thinkers might well have uttered them.
Those were the words of Ed Asner, the actor who became a household name in the role of gruff but lovable Lou Grant, the boss at a TV station, in the 1970s TV comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He then carried the character over, with a new job as a Los Angeles newspaper editor, to one of the most socially conscious programs in the history of television, the eponymous Lou Grant of the late 1970s and early ’80s. 
When he died Sunday, at age 91, after a storied career that included multiple runs on Broadway, dozens of TV and movie roles, and even a star turn as the voice of Carl Fredricksen in the Academy Award–winning 2009 film Up, the Associated Press obituary described Asner as a “liberal.” Asner chose more robust language. A self-proclaimed “old-time lefty,” he proudly embraced the label “socialist” at a time when many of the most radical people in public life avoided it.
This 1982 profile from the Washington Post is a great read: "The Actor as Activist". It closes with this.
Yesterday he announced that he and his colleagues in entertainment would play an increasingly active role in political matters, that they have no expertise, it's true, but "we are all American citizens and our visibility gives us a special responsibility."

And does he think that in the process they're losing their identities as actors? "I hope to furbish my identity as a concerned human being," Asner said. "If it costs the actor, then so be it."

With Dennis Weaver, 1978

Eastern Airlines strike, 1989

With Cesar Chavez

* "Sopranos" fans might want to check out a young Nancy Marchand, whose character Mrs. Pynchon was modeled after Katharine Graham, owner of the Washington Post.


chuck close, rest in peace

The artist Chuck Close died last week at the age of 81. He was an incredibly talented artist, a progressive thinker, and a diehard New Yorker who was often seen around town, especially in museums and galleries.

I had the good fortune to interview Close at his studio in 1998. I saw a few paintings in progress, and had a glass of wine with him. The interview was for a cover story for New Mobility magazine, and at that point, a highlight of my writing career.

My interview with Close is notable, in my mind, for a foolish gaffe I made in the published story. Close said something off the record, then talked for a very long time, and I assumed the off-record part was very brief -- turns out it was the whole long story. 

He was gracious about it towards me, but furious at the magazine who allowed the story to run without checking with him first. The online edition was edited, but in 1998, print was still ascendant in the magazine world. 

The quote caused Close no small embarrassment, and of course I was embarrassed, too. But I was also secretly pleased that I was able to include an unvarnished truth that the subject preferred withheld. 

If you're interested, here's the story. 

goodbye charlie watts

Charlie Watts was the greatest rock and roll drummer of all time. He's the reason the Stones' music has so much swing, why it skips and chugs and rolls and flies, where so much rock merely clumps and plods. His playing was always described as propulsive.  

And of course Charlie was known for his deadpan style, his bemused, unflappable demeanour. He always talked about hating touring, but loving playing with the band, the central, unresolvable dilemma of his life. I love how he always mentioned his fascination with jazz.

Everyone jokes about how Keith Richards will outlive us all. But one by one, the original members of the Rolling Stones will die, and I will be gutted, every time.


portland street art

Our pics of murals, other street art, and food carts in Portland's Alberta Arts District are now online. The photos themselves are nothing special, but the murals are very cool: here on Flickr.

I also added a link to the photos in the post about our day in Portland.

what i'm reading: you could look it up: the reference shelf from ancient babylon to wikipedia

This must be the book-nerd-iest post ever, and unless books are your profession, possibly the biggest book geek-out you'll ever read. And I'm proud to bring it to you.

You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia, by Jack Lynch, is a joy to read, endlessly fascinating, and for aficionados of books or history, extremely entertaining. 

YCLIU is organized in short chapters, each highlighting two related, contrasted, works of reference. Between the small chapters are even shorter half-chapters on relevant, often amusing topics. 

The organization may seem a bit complicated, but it works wonderfully in the reader's favour. The author, no doubt, knows a lot more about each book he has highlighted, and I imagine could easily overwhelm us with information. Instead, he crafts a concise and lively summary, highlighting whatever is most unusual and interesting about that particular book. 

Some of the creators became household names, synonymous with their work: Roget, Webster, Hoyle, Post. Others dominate within professions: Gray's, Black's, Merck. (The card catalogue belongs in this category, and true to librarianship values, it was never branded.) There are collections of medieval medical knowledge, catalogues of sciences of the ancient world, maps of the stars, maps of the world. There are several dictionaries and encyclopedias, which take multiple forms, without even widespread agreement on the differences between the two. From the (marvelous) introduction:

You Could Look It Up does not pretend to be comprehensive, touching on all the world's important reference works -- no book could do that. Instead, it contains accounts of fifty great works I find interesting, maybe because they are the first of their kind, maybe the biggest, or the most learned, or the most controversial, or the most influential, or maybe just the most eccentric or quixotic.  . . .  In my pairings I choose two more or less contemporary works on related subjects and set them in their historical context. . . . Tucked between the chapters are shorter interludes that introduce stories that would otherwise go untold in a strictly linear history. In telling fifty little stories, I hope one big story emerges, as well as histories of some of the major reference genres -- dictionary, encyclopedia, atlas, and so on. 

The topical half-chapters are particularly fun. These include information overload (first recorded between 450 and 200 B.C.E.), plagiarism, bookshelf organization, famous errors and omissions, sexism, unfinished or lost projects, a list of some quirky and strange reference books -- and many more. The half-chapters, each only two or three pages, make addictive reading; the breadth of human knowledge represented is astounding.

For a topic that may seem so specific, this book will have great appeal for people who, like me, love to learn bits about everything -- and anyone who loves language. Each short chapter reveals the book itself, and the social context of its creation. Why was this book needed? What problem was the creator trying to resolve, and to what extent did they succeed? How does the work reflect the values of its era? How did it advance progress -- or prevent it? How did the work change lives, and whose lives did it change -- scholars, merchants, professionals, ordinary people? 

The creation of each work (they're not all books, strictly speaking) is often the most interesting part of the story. Lynch, an English professor at Rutgers University, has an uncanny ability to highlight details that make what could be a dry synopsis entertaining and often amusing. It's difficult to choose from the dozens of examples that I tagged, but here are a few.

From a chapter about logarithmic tables -- the forerunner of the slide rule, itself the forerunner of the pocket calculator, now made redundant by personal computers and smartphones.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the French engineer Gaspard Clair Francois Marie Riche de Prony oversaw one such workshop. Inspired by Adam Smith's recently published Treatise on the Wealth of Nations (1776), he assembled a team of some sixty unemployed hairdressers to carry out his instructions. (In the wake of the French Revolution there was less call for high-end hairdressers, not least because, thanks to Citizen Joseph-Ignace Guillotin's eponymous invention, fewer aristocratic heads needed dressing.)
From a chapter about catalogues of erotic writing.

To twenty-first-century sensibilities, seventeenth-century pornography does not seem very pornographic. Aristotle's Master-Piece sometimes reads more like a sermon than a sex guide. . . . Once the book gets going, though, there is little doubt that it should be categorized as what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called a "livre √† lire d'une seule main," a book to be read with one hand. 

From a chapter about two massive dictionaries, the creators of each taking different approaches to their task.

The next editor, though, was a winner: a forty-two-year-old Scot named James Murray. (Later he would pick up a knighthood and a pair of middle initials, becoming Sir James. A. H. Murray, but the initials do not seem to stand for anything.)

In this chapter, Lynch describes two different methods of defining words: splitters and lumpers. He calls Murray of Pompous Initials a "card-carrying splitter". 

People who created reference works tend towards the obsessives. In the same chapter as Sir James of the Nonsense Initials, there is the story of William Dodd. Dodd's obsession with compiling quotes from Shakespeare cost him his life.

Dodd hoped his Beauties would not merely entertain his readers but would edify them as well -- from Shakespeare, readers would learn valuable lessons of morality. But he should have paid more attention to a passage he included under "A Father's Advice to his Son, going to travel," in which Polonius advised Laertes against being a borrower or a lender. In 1777, Dodd found himself in debt, and he forged Lord Chesterfield's name on a bond worth £4,200 -- this at a time when a middle-class family could live comfortably on less than £100 a year. When the forgery was discovered, he was sentenced to death by handing. Samuel Johnson pleaded for mercy, and more than twenty thousand people joined in signing a petition begging the crown to commute the sentence. It was in vain. Dodd was hanged at Tyburn in 1777, after prompting one of Johnson's more memorable quotations: "Depend upon it, Sir," he said, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

* * * *

Lynch demonstrates how reference works reveal cultural attitudes, beliefs, and biases. I was familiar with some examples -- such as the Index, the notorious work of the Catholic Church, and the DSM, which infamously defined much of human sexuality as pathology -- but most were new to me. About Hobson-Jobson, the English-language dictionary of colonial India, Lynch says "the book ends up being a social history despite itself." He attests to the book's racism -- and makes no excuses or justifications for this -- but also reveals how under the often offensive exterior, the book documents a historic cultural shift, evidenced by language.

Lynch makes a very strong case for the reference book as foundational to human progress. At various times, the creation of a new reference work helped form revolutionary thought, created a national identity, enabled science and modern medicine to progress, or enabled ordinary people to educate themselves. 

I loved the author's passion for his subject, and his true scholar's openness to learning across all cultures and time periods. Lynch prizes all collectors of knowledge no matter what the source. This quality should be universal, but of course it is not, and it's a pleasure to come across. He also doesn't fear change. He fully embraces the digital era, acknowledging both its wonders and its pitfalls.

Lynch's writing is so lively and animated, that if you have an interest in the books, in language, and in a sweeping world history, you are very likely to enjoy this. The way it's organized makes it an ideal book to read in portions, perhaps between novels -- although I would recommend reading it in the order written.

In short, if you're a book geek, this book is so much fun.

* * * *

Only now will I share that I didn't like YCLIU when I first picked it up. I thought the organization of the book was too precious, even silly. I read a few pages, and let it go. 

But that just seemed ridiculous. I love reference books! And I'm a librarian! Not that most librarians do much reference anymore -- I certainly don't -- but still, knowing where and how to search for information a core part of my profession. How could I not want to read this book??

I gave it another chance, and...  I loved it. What's more, the organization is genius. 

* * * *

I have always loved reference books. 

As a child, if I had a school assignment that sent me to an encyclopedia, I would get lost flipping through the book and reading random entries. The same for a dictionary! I'd look up one word, I'd start skimming dozens of definitions. But now, even with a print dictionary and multiple thesauri within reach on my desk, I will quickly google a word to confirm its meaning, thus missing the opportunity to browse. And this from someone who loves print reference. I am rarely nostalgic, but this seems sad.

I can still lose myself in a paper map or atlas, looking at place-names and thinking about their origin. When I was a child, my native New York State always seemed so interesting that way, its place-names revealing layers of history: English, Dutch, and Native American. 

My personal reference shelf includes two treasured books that were (two separate) birthday gifts from my mother: a hardcover thesaurus, The New Roget's Thesaurus in Dictionary Form, and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 16th Edition. These were incredibly meaningful gifts. We didn't own many books, and even fewer hardcovers. My mother was affirming my writerly self. 

Many years later, I was excited to add a copy of the AP Stylebook to my reference shelf; it was a milestone in my writing life.

Through a lengthy email friendship, I ended up with an The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and a copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

Pre-internet, Allan and I would look things up in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide and The Rolling Stone Record Guide (neither of which we own anymore). 

And of course, there is The Baseball Encyclopedia, foundational in our home.

Here are reference books we own.

These are in my office, in easy reach, although I rarely reach for them anymore.

These live on our shared shelves.

Just the one on the left.

Despite Google Maps, we still use this frequently.

I haven't opened these in eons, but I hang onto them.

Ditto, although with less feeling attached.

These are books I contributed to and helped create.
I also contributed to a children's world encyclopedia.

These are a sample of the reference books on Allan's shelves.


a childhood book and a dream for humanity: in henry's backyard (1948)

When I was a child, my family had a book called In Henry's Backyard. My siblings and I read it repeatedly. The book tells the story of a man who learns that all the "races of man" are equal.

Over many years and decades, my brother has mentioned this book, an artifact from our youth. With the advent of the internet, I was able to suggest a few sites where he might be able to find a copy of In Henry's Backyard. And he did.

During our recent vacation, hanging out on the deck of my brother and sister-in-law's home, my brother mentioned the book, and I was excited to hold it in my hands, a piece of my personal history.

Seeing the cover was transporting! By today's standards, the illustrations are racist caricatures, and the concepts are all drawn from stereotypes. But in the context of its time, this book was decidedly anti-racist

In Henry's Backyard disputes claims of racial superiority. Its claims: physical differences between humans are superficial; humans of all colours have equal potential; humans of all colours may be good or bad, smart or stupid, kind or unkind.

Here's the inside blurb of In Henry's Backyard.

As my brother read a random page aloud, I suddenly remembered a line from the book. One portion refutes the idea that brain size is somehow linked to intelligence, a concept that was in vogue at the time. I called out, Wait wait wait . . . and the biggest brain belonged to an imbecile! Long-term memory, eh?

As I paged through the front matter, I was even more amazed to see this.

Imagine my surprise -- and my pride -- at discovering that In Henry's Backyard this book was born of the labour movement! The UAW! Walter Reuther! My heart swells thinking of it.

* * * *

I was recently involved in a discussion about the book Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George. (George also wrote one of my favourite childhood books, My Side of the Mountain, which I mentioned here, in a post about the book Hatchet.) In Julie of the Wolves, Inuk people are referred to as Eskimos, now an antiquated and derogatory term.

A colleague suggested this book doesn't belong on our shelves. And they were right. Children don't need to read Julie of the Wolves; there are far more modern and relevant books that cover the same ground. 

But I felt the need to put Julie in context. The intent of the book was not racist. George was using the terminology of the time. We might also point out that George was white, and was telling an Inuit story. It would be better for Inuk to tell their own stories. True enough. But in 1972, telling a positive story about an Inuit person and about wolves was itself progressive.

Similarly, I would never suggest that In Henry's Backyard should be reprinted, and it certainly doesn't belong on library shelves today. But it shouldn't be dismissed as offensive or hidden as an embarrassment. In the context of its time, it was light-years ahead. As my brother said, "It makes a point that is yet to be embraced."