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?