barbara ehrenreich, rest in power. i will miss you.

I was very saddened by the news that Barbara Ehrenreich had died earlier this month. She was one of my favourite thinkers and writers, and I found it difficult to bundle my thoughts and feelings into a tribute. 

From her last book, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, I know she rejected continuing with  cancer treatment after a certain point, so it was good to see that she died while in hospice care.

Why did Ehrenreich's writing mean so much to me?

She was a fierce champion of the working class.

She was fearless in her research and her writing.

She was a steadfast feminist, always examining the impact of policies and trends on women, especially working-class and low-income women.

She was clear-eyed and unrepentent. Ehrenreich's essay on the 2000 US election, "Vote For Nader," was widely shared. Then her post-election "Don't Blame Me", in Time magazine, strengthened my admiration for her. 

So many supposedly leftist writers will spend 1,500 words explaining why the Democrats suck, why the two-party system is broken, why we need a new or a different party -- then close with some version of "but that's all we got, so just shut up and vote for them". Ehrenreich understood a more complex picture.

I know there's not much point arguing with a party spurned. Scapegoating is, after all, so much easier than thinking. But, dear disappointed Dems, why not vent your rage on, for example, the union guys who voted for Bush because of his easygoing attitude toward firearms? (Oh, yes, I forgot, they're armed.) And before beating up on the Democratic defectors to Nader, wouldn't it be a good idea to pause for a little numerical perspective? According to exit polls, Gore lost 11 pecent of Democratic voters to Bush, compared to only 2 percent to Nader, who also drew votes from Independents and Republicans.

One of the major charges leveled against Nader voters is that we pretended - in some perverse kind of optical malingering - that we couldn't see the difference between the major candidates. Well, I'm capable of making fine visual distinctions. But a lot of people who probably never wandered near the Nader camp kept muttering, "Bush, Gore? Gush, Bore?" right up to election eve. This was, after all, the year the parties did their utmost to resemble one another. Recall that in August, after a Republican convention full of "compassion" and black gospel choirs, the pundits gave Bush high marks for making the Republican party look more like the Democratic party. But how hard was that? He wouldn't have been able to make the Republicans look like the Democrats if the Democrats had not already spent most of the past decade making themselves look like the Republicans - embracing capital punishment, unrestricted trade, welfare reform and the need to abolish the deficit. You call this a two-party system? I demand a recount.

. . . .

The staggering thing about the Democratic party's sense of entitlement - as in, "We own your vote" - is that it has made so little effort to hold on to its base. Labor, for example. Would there have been any worry about union members' defecting to Nader if the Clinton administration had spent even half as much time fighting to raise the minimum wage as it spent on pushing free trade with China?

So back off, Democratic avengers. Nader didn't steal Gore's election; he just mobilized some of the mounting disgust for money-polluted politics, with its battery-operated candidates and look-alike, corporate-welfare-state policies, whether they're labeled Democratic or Republican. All right, maybe the Republican disguise worked for the Democrats in 1992. But if you go around long enough in camouflage clothes, you're eventually going to be mistaken for, well, a bush.

What I loved best about Ehrenreich's writing was that she wrote for everyone. Although she was a columnist for The Nation, which was (before the internet) the preeminent left publication in the US, most of her writing had a broader target. She wanted to enlighten, educate, and also entertain, anyone who could read her. For me, this put her at the absolute top of the heap of feminist and socialist writers. 

A lifetime ago, I saw Ehrenreich read on a double bill with another great feminist writer, Katha Pollitt. When she signed my copy of The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed, she said, "Hardcover! Bless you, supporting my family." Just a tiny personal memory from more than three decades of attention and admiration.

If you haven't read any of Ehrenreich's books, certainly begin with Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, which has become a classic, then Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.

Her obituary in The Guardian is here. Both this, and the obituary in The New York Times, recount the birth of the idea for Nickled and Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich, I will miss your voice.


the north island report: whale watching, little huson caves park, zeballos

While we had family visiting, we did a little more exploring of the North Island. 

We went to Telegraph Cove, a historic village and tiny tourist resort just south of Port McNeill, which is the easiest place to pick up a whale watching boat, a guided kayaking trip, or similar excursions. There are a few companies doing similar things out of Port Hardy and Port McNeill, but they mostly cater to tour groups. If you're on your own, not with a tour, Prince of Whales is your best bet.

We did the same trip with my mother in 2019, but this never gets old. Since we don't own a boat -- and never will -- I'd be happy to do this annually. We're surrounded by water, but normally can only enjoy it from the shore. It's well worth spending some cash now and again to be on the water.

We had spectacular weather, which certainly increases the enjoyment! The waters of the Broughton Archipelago, just off the east coast of Vancouver Island, are smooth and dark -- rich with organic material that sustains large populations of marine life. We saw a huge number of humpbacks, including two pairs of mothers with calves, copious sea lions, and a raft of sea otters -- dozens of them swimming, playing, and relaxing. No orcas this time, unfortunately, although they have been spotted all summer.

As I've said and written countless times, there is something so magical about seeing animals in their own environments. I enjoy any glimpse of wildlife, but for me, none is more beautiful and mysterious than marine mammals. I am fascinated by their very existence, these creatures with whom we have so much in common, who evolved on land, yet must continually swim to the surface to breathe. Seeing them in the wild is breathtaking.

[While riting this post, I discovered that our photos from the first time we did this, in 2019, were on wtmc but not on Flickr. I'll fix that and post an update.]

On a different day, we visited Little Huson Cave Park, then continued on to the tiny hamlet of Zeballos. 

Like most of the accessible sights in this area, the caves are not a big deal, but something to do if you're curious and passing through. Shortly after we moved to this area, we did something called the Alice Lake Recreation Loop, a drive through logging roads with stops at various points of interest. The stops were pretty interesting, if unspectacular, and it was a clever idea to collect them into a driving loop. Little Huson Cave Park was very much like one of those stops -- a short hike into the woods (always nice), some limestone outcroppings known as karst, some caves to look at it. It's not far from the "highway" (Route 19), so might be worth a stop. 

Zeballos is a tiny community that was once a gold-mining town. With a population of around 100, it's too small and underserviced to be considered a village. Our library in Port Hardy often donates surplus and discarded books to Zeballos' little volunteer-run library, but I had never been there. No one I know has been there either! 

From Route 19, north of Woss, it's about an hour's drive down an unpaved logging road, to a collection of tidy little homes on an inlet. There's supposedly a lodge and a fishing expedition service, but I don't know if either are still active. There is nothing else. (I knew this in advanced and had already told our guests what to expect.) Now I have become the only person in my workgroup to have actually visited Zeballos. 

Now that my brother and sister-in-law have visited twice, we may have exhausted all potential sight-seeing in our area. We're not campers and do short day-hikes only, so the options, although beautiful, are limited. Next time they come up from Oregon, we may meet in Victoria. 


the north island report: where to eat in port hardy and port mcneill, updated for 2022

It seems like everything in our lives will be divided by covid -- pre and post. The lockdown, the  case counts, the death counts. Quarantining our groceries. Masks. Vaccines. Hand sanitizer. The anti-maskers. 

Back in 2019, the beforetime, I listed all the decent restaurants in our town and the nearest neighbouring town (40 minutes away). Now the whole restaurant landscape has changed.

Update: For some additional context, I'm adding this, copied and edited from comments.

The population of the two towns: Port Hardy 4200, Port McNeill 2100. This list covers restaurants in both towns.

Port Hardy is a regional hub. The next population centre is in Campbell River, a 2.5-hour drive away, or 2 hours from McNeill. All the other communities in the region are tiny (less than 500 people) and have no restaurants at all.
Hardy is also a hub for campers, hikers, boaters, and nature-lover tourism.

Breakfast/lunch places are plentiful because many people drive and boat long distances to work. Contractors, loggers, fishers, mine work, all picking up breakfast and/or lunch before they head "into the bush".

So tourism + regional hub + workers traveling great distances = a few more restaurants and cafes in the two towns than might be available in other towns of similar sizes.

Sad changes

Fire Chefs, the most amazing fish and chips place, also home to a truly great grilled halibut burger: gone. 

The (mediocre) restaurant that replaced them: gone.

Ha'me, the dining room at the Kwa'lilas Hotel -- the best year-round food in town -- never reopened post-covid. If you ask, staff still says they are closed for renovations, but it appears to be permanent. This is another big loss.

Most disappointing of all, the late, great Cluxewe Waterfront Bistro is no more. This was the only place in the North Island with truly outstanding food and very good wine. It was also in a beautiful secluded location, right on the water. I used to say, only on the North Island do you drive down a dirt road to a four-star restaurant. 

Our first summer, 2019, we went there a handful of times. In 2020, they were the first restaurant to re-open, and we went as often as possible, usually every-other week. And thank goodness we did, because that autumn, they lost their lease and left the area. Such a loss.

Now, the current list, updated after summer 2022

This is not a list of the best restaurants in Port Hardy and Port McNeill: it's a list of all of them. Fortunately they are all at least decent.

Port Hardy

Glen Lyon Inn

This place has a huge and strangely eclectic menu. Some of the food is quite good -- crab cakes that are fresh and not full of breading, nachos with seriously good toppings, excellent burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches. Other items are good enough -- lasagna, fresh salads, steaks, ribs. Nothing is awful. 

What is awful, for me, is the atmosphere -- despite its beautiful location right on the water. Everything is dingy and run-down. I know renovations are expensive, but how much would it cost to sand and re-paint the wooden chairs? Allan thinks I exaggerate, but I just find the atmosphere depressing. I prefer this food for take-out. 

Interesting note: I've heard that diners have seen whales in the inlet right outside the restaurant. I'm skeptical but folks swear it's true.


At the beautiful Kwa'lilas Hotel, the dining room, Ha'me, never re-opened after covid, so now the pub/lounge Nax'id is their only dining option. The food is consistently good. Everything is made with fresh ingredients and care, and the wait staff is always friendly and helpful. 

The menu is annoyingly inconsistent, probably a function of high turnover in the kitchen. Sometimes there are delicious specials available. Other times, not. So although the food is good, many of my favourite things on their old menu are gone.

Another plus: Kwal'lilas and Nax'id are Indigenous-owned, and have a hiring arrangement with North Island College's hospitality program.

Seto's Wok and Grill

Our local Chinese restaurant continues to have consistently good food, although with a frustratingly limited menu. The food is especially good eaten in their dining room, as opposed to takeout. 

This was the last restaurant to return to eat-in dining, and the community is very happy they're back. They are open Wednesday through Saturday -- which is weird, and annoying.

Sporty Bar and Grill

Here's a happy story: a place that improved post-covid! Sporty updated its menu and added weekly specials, giving us many more choices. The food is consistently good. 

Sporty is close Sunday and Monday, even when there are festivals or a market in the park across the street. Also annoying!

Karai Sushi

The Japanese restaurant moved from its odd location at an airport hotel to the town's main drag (in the spot where Fire Chefs used to be). All the food here is good, and business seems to be off-the-charts busy since they moved into town. I am so grateful there is sushi in Port Hardy!

Macy's Place

This is a fish-and-chips food truck. It doesn't match the quality of the late, great Fire Chefs, but the fish, burgers, fish tacos, and fries are quite good.

They're closed in the winter, and everyone's very happy when they reopen.

The same family owns a seafood store that sells freshly caught-and-canned tuna, salmon, and halibut. I haven't tried this yet, as I fear it would be deliciously addictive, and it's super expensive.

Other food in Port Hardy, not open for dinner

Café Guido has great coffee, baked goods, and simple lunch choices. It's also home to a small book- and gift shop, and a co-op selling the work of local artists and artisans. It's unique on the North Island, and it's mobbed during the summer.

Copper & Kelp is Café Guido's newer store. In the local lingo, it is "at the beach," as opposed to "in town". Besides sandwiches, coffee, and baked goods, they sell local artisan products of all types, plus dinners to go. We were really surprised that Guido's opened a second place in this location, and our fingers are crossed that it will succeed.

Taif's Kitchen is an exciting new option. A family of Syrian refugees opened a food truck! The food is really good and it's a popular choice.

Market Street Cafe has really good -- and ridiculously inexpensive -- breakfasts. They are the only place in town that bakes their own bread and muffins. 

Mo's is a pizza, fried chicken, and gyros joint. The food is not bad. 

U Cafe sells Chinese takeout with a limited menu in the mall. (Don't think suburban mall with dozens of stores and a food court. It's a one-story, T-shaped building with the town's only supermarket, a pharmacy, and a fast-food joint.) U Cafe's food is fair, and it extends our Chinese-food options. The big drawback is that it's cash only.

Port Hardy also has a Subway and an A&W

Port McNeill

Devil's Bath Brewery

This is the most exciting new opening in our area: a spacious, hip-looking restaurant specializing in thin-crust pizza and their own microbrews. They serve a variety of interesting pizzas and pastas, plus a few nightly specials, in a lovely relaxing space. Big thumbs up. 

Archipelago's Bistro

Despite its name, this is actually a diner. The food is consistently good food and there are some interesting options on the menu: along with the usual burgers and sandwiches, there are a variety of pastas, risottos, and poutines. They make a salad with figs, roasted pear, and gorgonzola cheese that I cannot resist. 

Sportsman Steak and Pizza House

This place renovated and revamped post-covid, and has a steak, seafood, and pizza menu. The food is good, the atmosphere is very nice, and it's in a nice setting directly across from the marina. 

Gus's Pub

Gus's serves sports-bar standards in a semi- sports bar atmosphere. We've never had bad food here, but I'm bored with these menus. 

Good food, but not dinner

Tia's Cafe has great coffee, breakfasts, and slightly Mexican-themed lunches. This is my top choice if I need to meet someone in Port McNeill for work.

Mugz 2.0 is a cafe serving freshly baked pastries, muffins, and bread. They use fresh, local ingredients and they know what they're doing. Mugz was closed for years, pre-covid, and we're all rooting for it to survive.

Port McNeill also has a Subway. There is also a Chinese takeout place with an ancient, greasy storefront that does not inspire confidence.


in which i observe education, job creation, and community building in progress

For the last couple of weeks, it's been my privilege to witness some exciting progress for our community, plus have a really interesting experience.

Literacy first

As a librarian and library manager in a remote region, I work closely with the local literacy society, and I sit on its board of directors. Before becoming a libarian, I didn't know anything about literacy societies or what they do. 

Our local literacy society provides some services that, to my mind, the library should provide, such as storytimes -- but cannot, because we lack adequate resources. But it also provides services that are beyond our scope, like in-school tutoring, adult computer training, book giveaways, family literacy days, and other important literacy-focused programs.

LLS is a small but mighty collection of dedicated, focused, community-minded activists who know how to get things done. Recently the LLS coordinator asked board members to help interview candidates for a post-secondary educational opportunity. The same call went out last year, but I was too busy to participate. This year the ask came at the perfect time, and I jumped on the opportunity. 

Grant wizards

What drives the success of our LLS -- and many other excellent local organizations -- is people who are always alert for opportunities, and know how to respond quickly and effectively. In this case, they applied for and received funding for ten students to attend the local college for a one-year course to become an educational assistant (EA) or community support worker (CSW). [For US readers, a college is a post-secondary institution distinct from a university.] 

EAs work one-on-one with students with special needs, helping them succeed in school. CSWs play a similar role with adults in the community, helping them live independently. Those are both important community jobs, but this diploma goes much further. It opens a huge array of employment possibilities, and can also be used as a building block towards other degrees in education or social work. 

Education + jobs + support workers = win-win-win

The purpose of the interviews was to find ten applicants who would be most likely to succeed in the program. Of the ten grant recipients from last year, eight are working full-time, and two went on for further education: an unqualified success.

In our small, remote communities, resources are scarce, and jobs are practically nonexistent. Most available jobs are precarious -- casual, on-call, very limited. Many folks juggle several jobs in order to survive. Of course, small towns aren't the only place this happens. But here, this is (almost) all that's available.

Most of the people in the program are already working as EAs or CSWs, but without a diploma, they earn less and are only eligible for casual and on-call work. The diploma course leads directly to permanent employment and an opportunity to advance through a salary grid. 

As it creates jobs in the community, it also creates more trained workers to assist children and adults who need support. The value of this cannot be overstated.

In keeping with the college's and province's mandates, the course has a special focus on the needs of Indigenous children and adults in care. Also hugely important for our community.


Over the course of three days, we listened to candidates' stories -- why they wanted to be part of the program, their career goals, how the program would advance their goals. Each applicant was a caring, dedicated public worker who wants to serve their community. And each was hard-working, striving person, juggling work, family, and their own education.

The funding (a combination of federal and provincial money) will pay for tuition and textbooks for the EA/CSW degree, and includes some supports to eliminate other obstacles, such as a tech, transportation, or work attire. I've heard so many stories of students who received tuition assistance, yet were still unable to attend school because they couldn't afford textbooks or other expenses. This program is designed to work.


housekeeping complete

* The best-of page has been updated to 2021.

* The links on that page are working again.

* Internal links on multi-part posts are also working again -- i.e. on the second part of a post links to the first, the third part links to the first and second, and so on.

* Other internal links on random posts throughout the blog don't work.


housekeeping in progress: apologies for possibly sending old posts

For a very long time, old links on this blog have not worked. This has always bothered me. 

It's bad enough that I lost many thousands of comments (2006 through 2019). I live in hope that this may change, if Blogger fixes the import/export issue, but as time goes by, that seems more and more doubtful. 

Added to that, the posts linked on wmtc's greatest hits are not functioning. It really bothers me.

So I've decided to fix them. I can't find and fix all the internal links on posts, but I can fix the greatest hits page

While I do that, and depending how you read this blog, it's possible that old posts will be sent to you or appear in your feed. Apologies in advance.


thoughts on privilege: using less oxygen in the room

Many years ago, at one of our wmtc parties, I was chatting with a new guest, the spouse of a friend. We had never met before, and they didn't know anyone else at the party. Wanting to be a good host, I made it a point to spend some time with her, and asked about her work. She answered briefly and shyly; seeking to draw her out, I asked some clarifying questions.

Another guest was also present, and they jumped in, verbally rolling their eyes at my apparent ignorance, and answered the question not meant for them. 

I wanted to say, I know that. I wasn't asking for information, I was trying to start a conversation. But obviously I couldn't say that, so I said nothing while the third party answered the question meant for the newer, less talkative guest. Then I tried again with a more specific question that the third person couldn't answer.

More importantly, I made a mental note of this conversation: don't be that person, realizing that I have been, more than once.

Leaving space for others to speak

Several years later, during some union training, I was reminded of this exchange. One of our ground rules for group engagement was to leave space for others to speak

This was revelatory to me! A new thought about another way we can see -- and check -- our privilege. A step we can take towards being an ally of people with less privilege.

Since this was made visible to me, I've become increasingly sensitive to the dynamics of group conversations. I've been challenging myself to do better. 

I think of it as using less oxygen in the room.

A diversity of voices > the sound of our own voice

Using less oxygen in the room means leaving space for others to speak -- space for voices  that may not speak as often or answer as quickly. 

These voices may be quiet from a lifetime of receiving messages that their ideas are not important and not welcome -- and the resulting inexperience, which may have led to a lack of confidence. 

The voices may be quiet from a lifetime of frustration and futility in trying to compete with the dominant voices. 

Or folks may simply be reluctant to speak in front of others. Some of us gain a lot of speaking experience in our daily work -- but many people do not. For many people, raising a hand to speak in a group setting constitutes public speaking, and public speaking is many people's greatest fear.

Those of us who don't fall into any of those categories can use less oxygen in the room for folks who do.

Slamming the buzzer

My new awareness of this dynamic has led me to examine why I and others might use up so much oxygen -- why we might claim an inequitable share of verbal space. 

Why do so many people respond to questions as if they're hitting a buzzer in a game show? Why do people need to be the first person to respond? Why are we so keen to display our knowledge?

This dynamic is separate and distinct from mansplaining. In fact, taking up too much oxygen in the room may be a result of having been mansplained excessively in the past: a rush to display knowledge before anyone else can shut you down. 

It may be the result of a lifetime of being praised for their intelligence -- and only for that, so that our positive self-image is inextricably connected to how much we know.

It may be the result of hyper-competitiveness -- viewing every interaction as a contest to be won or lost.

It may be that we're passionate about the topic and just love to talk about it.

And of course, it may be any combination of the above, and very likely some motivations I haven't thought of here.

These days, when I find myself in a group dynamic, I am learning to ask myself: Do I need to answer this question? Do I need to speak? Am I contributing something unique or necessary? And I practice being comfortable keeping my knowledge to myself.  

An active silence

Using less oxygen in the room is something men can do when there are women present. 

It's something white people can do when there are people of colour present.

It's something settler people can do when there are Indigenous people present.

It's something more experienced people can do when there are younger or less experienced people present.

It's something anyone who in a group majority can do to help anyone in a group minority feel more comfortable speaking. 

It comes down to something both simple and challenging: checking your own ego.

It doesn't mean not speaking. It means not needing to speak your every thought. It means knowing the answer, but checking your impulse to answer it, waiting to see if someone else does.

You don't need to be the smartest person in the room.

You don't need to display your knowledge. 

You don't need to draw attention to yourself.

It's not a contest. 

Your silence -- your deference to others -- can be your contribution.


what i'm reading: the leak: great junior graphic for the young activist in your life

It starts with a trip to the dentist. Ruth Keller swears she brushes her teeth and flosses daily, yet the cavities are piling up. The dentist lectures, her mom scolds. No one believes that Ruth takes proper care of her teeth -- but she does. 

Then Ruth and a friend see workers dumping something into the lake. 

Ruth already writes an online newletter. She gets to work investigating, and repurposes her newsletter into an exposé. 

In The Leak, Kate Reed Petty and Andrea Bell have created an updated and more complex descendant of Harriet, from the classic Harriet the Spy. Ruth is the perfect young hero: smart, brave, misunderstood, flawed -- learning and growing.

Ruth dives headlong into her activism -- rashly, clumsily, and with great courage. Some adults oppose her and try to stop her. A couple of adults recognize her potential and offer guidance and support. Ruth is smart and resourceful and finds a way through, but not without a cost. As she exposes the truth about her town's poisoned water, many hard truths are exposed to her.

The story references the real-life story of the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan. There's an explanatory epilogue that would come off as unnecessary and didactic in an adult novel, but I appreciate it for younger readers. 

I would have loved this book as a child. In many ways, I was Ruth -- a writer, an activist, straddling the line between my nerdy preferences and my need to fit in. Ruth's journey would have been the perfect fantasy for me, but this book would have wide appeal for many young readers. 

I loved Kate Reed Petty's debut novel, True Story. On Petty's website I see she has written another junior graphic, which I will now look for. I'm looking forward to whatever she writes next.


bill russell, rest in power: a trailblazing activist

Basketball legend Bill Russell died this month at the age of 88. Although I remember his playing days, it's not Russell's incredible and indelible sports record that leads me to honour him. If you're not familiar with Russell's life as a trailblazing activist, this is an excellent history lesson; if you are, it's a heartfelt reminder. 

It's also a reminder of what Russell endured, playing for one of the US's most racist cities. I don't know if things have changed greatly for people of colour in Boston, but when Canadians talk about the US South as if racism was somehow confined there, I always think of Boston.

Among Pro Athletes, Bill Russell Was a Pioneering Activist

Russell marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke out against segregation in Boston public schools and backed Muhammad Ali in his opposition to the Vietnam War.

It's easy to remember the shots that Bill Russell blocked or the N.B.A. championships he won. After all, there were so many of each that he is considered one of the greatest basketball players in history, and in some corners, the greatest, period.

But after his nearly nine decades of life, his most consequential legacy has less to do with the sport he dominated than his work off the court. From the time he was a young man to his death at age 88 on Sunday, Russell was a civil rights activist who consistently used his platform as a celebrity athlete to confront racism, no matter whom it alienated or what it did to his public popularity. And he was one of the first to do so.

Now, it is common for athletes across many sports to be outspoken, no doubt inspired by Russell. The N.B.A. players' union encourages its members to be passionate about their politics, especially around social justice. Without Russell's risking his own livelihood and enduring the cruelties he did as a Black player in the segregated Boston of the 1950s and 1960s, athlete activism would look much different today, if it existed at all.

From left: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor)

"The blueprint was written by Russell," the Rev. Al Sharpton said in an interview on Sunday. He continued: "It is now trendy on social media to take a stand. He did it when it was not trendy. He set the trend."

Spike Lee, the director and longtime N.B.A. fan, said in a text message, "We are losing so many greats my head is spinning."

Lee said Russell "is right up there with Jackie Robinson as changing the game in sports and activism in the United States of America, and we are all better because of these champions."

Russell, a native of West Monroe, La., was a trailblazer from the moment he set foot on an N.B.A. court.

"My rookie year, in the championship series, I was the only Black player for both teams," Russell once quipped to an audience while accepting an award in Boston. "And see what we did, we showed them diversity works."

Russell marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 in the prime of his playing career (he played for the Celtics from 1956 to 1969). He was invited to sit onstage behind King, but he declined. That same year, Russell offered his public support for demonstrations against segregation in Boston public schools, and addressed Black students taking part in a sit-in.

When the civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated, also in 1963, Russell contacted Evers's older brother, Charles, in Jackson, Miss., and offered his assistance. The elder Evers suggested that Russell run an integrated basketball camp in the Deep South, something that would have been a significant safety risk for Russell. He said yes, and despite the death threats, went through with the camp.

Four years later, when the boxer Muhammad Ali was faced with a torrent of criticism for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, Russell, the N.F.L. star Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor and still playing at U.C.L.A.) gathered in Cleveland and decided to support Ali. This was not a popular stance, not that Russell cared.

Russell wrote immediately afterward that he was envious of Ali.

"He has absolute and sincere faith," Russell wrote for Sports Illustrated. "I'm not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I'm worried about is the rest of us."

Russell's activism made an impact on generations of athletes. That included Spencer Haywood, who played for Russell as a member of the Seattle SuperSonics, whom Russell coached for four seasons. (In 1966, Russell became the first Black coach in the N.B.A.)

Haywood said in an interview on Sunday that he and Russell would often dine at a Seattle restaurant called 13 Coins after road trips, and Russell would regale him with stories about the civil rights movement. During these dinners, Russell lauded the young player's willingness to sue the N.B.A. in 1971 for not allowing players to enter the league until four years after their high school graduation — a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was eventually decided in Haywood's favor.

"He was teaching me because he knew what I had stood up for with my Supreme Court ruling," Haywood said. "And he admired that in me. And I was so overwhelmed by him knowing."

Haywood said his teammates would jokingly refer to Russell as Haywood's "daddy" because of how close they were. Sometimes, Haywood's late-night talks with Russell came with surprising advice about activism.

"He always used to tell me about not getting too carried away because we were in the '70s," Haywood recalled. "He was kind of guiding me, saying: 'Don't go out too far right now because you are a player and you need to play the game. But you've made one stand and you did great in that, but don't go too far.' He was, like, giving me a guardrail."

Russell never feared going too far as a player activist himself. He wasn't deterred by the racist taunts he absorbed at games, or when vandals broke into his home, spray-painted epithets on the wall and left feces on the bed after he moved his family to Reading, Mass. When he tried to move his family to a different house nearby, some residents of the mostly white neighborhood started a petition to keep him out.

"I said then that I wasn't scared of the kind of men who come in the dark of night," Russell wrote for Slam magazine in 2020. "The fact is, I've never found fear to be useful."

He didn't always have the support of his teammates. In 1961, for example, the Celtics traveled to Lexington, Ky., for an exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks. When the restaurant at the hotel would not serve the team's Black players, Russell led a strike of the game. His white teammates played the game. Bob Cousy, one of Russell's white teammates, told the writer Gary M. Pomerantz decades later for the 2018 book "The Last Pass: Cousy, the Celtics and What Matters in the End" that he was "ashamed" at having taken part in the game. President Barack Obama cited the 1961 story in giving Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

"For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what's right," Obama said in a statement Sunday. "I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life."

The activism didn't stop as Russell got older. In recent years, Russell has been a public supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick, the former N.F.L. quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality in 2016.

"Bill Russell was a pioneer," Etan Thomas, a former N.B.A. player and political activist, said in a text message Sunday. Thomas said Russell was "an athlete who used his position and platform to stand up for a bigger cause." He added that "he was the type of athlete I wanted to be like when I grew up."

Russell's influence in leading the 1961 strike could be felt in 2020, when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play a playoff game as a protest of police brutality. On Twitter, Russell wrote that he was "moved by all the N.B.A. players for standing up for what is right." In a piece for The Players' Tribune weeks later, Russell wrote, "Black and Brown people are still fighting for justice, racists still hold the highest offices in the land."

Sharpton pointed to those actions as Russell’s legacy.

"He did it before some of these guys were born," Sharpton said. "And I think that what they need to understand is every time a basketball player or athlete puts a T-shirt on saying something about Trayvon or 'I Am Trayvon' or 'Black Lives Matter' or whatever they want to do — 'Get your knee off my neck!' — they may not know it, but they are doing the Bill Russell."

Sopan Deb is a basketball writer and a contributor to the Culture section. Before joining The Times, he covered Donald J. Trump's presidential campaign for CBS News. He is also a New York-based comedian. @sopandeb

Also: "The Bill Russell I Knew For 60 Years," by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 


what i'm reading: like other girls: best youth fiction i've read in a long time

A girl wants to play football.

That's all.

Well, not quite all. Mara wants to be herself. And that self wants to play football, among other things. 

Mara isn't trying to make a statement. She doesn't want to be political, and although she knows she's gay, she doesn't want to come out -- not yet, not until she is far away from her hometown.

But when other athletic girls also want to join the football team -- and when one of them is out, and political -- there is no "just". The girls' decisions prove to be a crucible for everyone involved: coaches, football players, siblings, parents, and of course the girls themselves. Many fail, and cause harm. Some rise to the challenge. Everyone is changed by the experience.

Friendship, romance, self-acceptance, identity, sexuality, gender, adult support, adult betrayal, leadership, morality, ethics -- all those themes and more are woven through Like Other Girls. And all through interesting characters, realistic and compelling plot lines, with humour and with passion.

Like Other Girls is one of the most fully realized and well written YAs I have read in many years. Cheers to Britta Lundin! I hope we see many more wonderful books from her.


what i'm reading: killers of the flower moon: the osage murders and the birth of the fbi

I'm sure many of you have read Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. It's an award-winning bestseller that garnered a lot of attention when it was published in 2017. If you haven't read it, get it from your library, or add to your Kindle, or run to your favourite local bookstore to pick it up. It is an excellent and very worthwhile read.

Killers of the Flower Moon is written like a cold-case murder mystery. Grann reveals the evidence both of long-ago murders and the detectives who sought to solve them, unwinding the many knots, false clues, and dead ends. It's exciting and suspenseful -- and when the case appears to be solved, the reader discovers  another, deeper level to the mystery. 

Along the way, Grann reveals an Indigenous community that was devastated by settlers who regarded them as subhuman, and completely expendable. Lives were shattered -- from greed, from hatred, and from total disregard. It's safe to say that most readers who pick up this book have never heard of the Osage murders. The book is revelatory, yet in keeping with everything we know about the fates of Indigenous people in the Americas. The Osage murders were a modern version of Pizarro claiming Atahualpa's gold.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a fast-paced, accessible read -- gripping and compelling -- the kind of story that seems almost impossible to believe, and yet is thoroughly researched and documented. Truly excellent narrative nonfiction.


the great canadian sox shop for quality products made in canada

Add the Great Canadian Sox Shop to the list of companies I'm happy to have found. 

I am so, so, so tired of buying things that instantly fall apart. I'll absolutely pay higher prices to avoid that. The worst is when you opt for higher prices, and the damn thing still falls apart after only a few uses. Future landfill.

In my experience, socks are very prone to this syndrome. As holes started to appear in the last batch of socks I bought, I started looking online for a better alternative. The only thing we can buy locally is crap, and of course made in Bangladesh, Cambodia, or China. Crap made in China that needs constant replacing comes with a mighty big carbon footprint.

There are many places online to buy socks. Why did I choose the Great Canadian Sox Shop?

* They have a huge selection.

* Most of their products are made in Canada. Actually in Toronto!

* They are a family-run business. I don't know what their labour practices are, but they must treat their 40 employees better than the Asian sweatshops do.

* They have a loyalty program. (Not a deciding factor, but a plus.)

* They have an option to ship with minimal packaging.

* For woolen socks, they follow the Responsible Wool Standards.

* And most importantly, everything I've purchased from them has been very high quality. On their own brand, J. B. Fields, they actually have a no-risk guarantee, good for a full year. 

My first purchase included an eye-catching postcard telling me I was supporting a small, family-run, Canadian business, plus a little "how to care for your socks" piece. It said, "Socks last longer if you don't put them in the dryer." I decided to try that. I purchased a second drying rack, and started hanging the socks to dry. And guess what? My electricity bill went down!

(This drying rack is stainless steel, comes already assembled, folds flat, and is both sturdy and lightweight. If you're into laundry, this may be your new favourite thing.)


the game report: an update that is not completely analog

Back in December of last year, I blogged about starting a game night at home, rotating every-other week between games and music. I was super happy about it. 

Seven months later, I can report mixed results -- mostly mixed because my partner really doesn't like games. This has always been a source of frustration for me. For some reason (unknown to me) he decided to give it a try, but doing something you really don't like on a regular basis is not much fun. 

It hasn't been a total washout. Plus... we've become addicted to a new-to-us videogame.

Not a gamer, but I love games

We don't have a gaming system and generally don't play videogames -- not because I'm opposed to them (or think they're evil, as some people seem to), but because I know I would find videogames incredibly addictive. I'd rather use my screen time watching movies or series. But there have been some exceptions.

Sometime in the early 2010s, we stumbled on Angry Birds on our Roku. We really enjoyed it and played the full game (with no power-ups) for three stars. Recently, I tried to get the newer Angry Birds Reloaded on our AppleTV. It wouldn't play properly, and apparently it never has on AppleTV, for anyone, ever. 

But while trying to make that work, we stumbled on Badland. Now we're hooked. At least I am. Allan claims to be ambivalent, but he looks pretty hooked to me.

The internet tells me Badland is an adventure/platforming game. You guide a character (called a clone) through a series of challenges (called checkpoints). Each checkpoint requires different strategies and you have to figure out what they are. This is the kind of simple but challenging game I enjoy. 

I love Badland's steampunk-style graphics and sound effects. It's very challenging and endlessly frustrating, which of course makes it very satisfying. 

Although I am addicted to Badland, I don't want to play it alone. Allan and I play as a team, taking turns, or handing off the controller when a checkpoint gets too frustrating. Sometimes we'll watch a one-hour episode of a series, then play Badland for the rest of the evening.

Allan and I have three nights each week together, and I'm confining my videogame play to those. Althought this conflicts with my movement towards digital minimalism, I'm enjoying it too much to care.

Tabletop games: how we fared

Here are the games we played and the results - good, bad and mixed.

  • Qwirkle. This is the game we've played the most because it's the one Allan likes best -- or at least dislikes least. It's fast, fun, a little challenging but not mind-bending. A good combination of luck and strategy.
  • Ticket to Ride. This is my favourite of the new games we acquired. There are decisions to make and things to think about, yet it moves along quickly. I'm hoping Allan will still agree to play it once in a while.
  • Pandemic. This game appears to be impossible to win, at least with two players. It's a cooperative (not competitive) game, and I want to play it with all hands -- Allan and I together playing six different players. Allan finds it too much work. I understand that, as I've been introduced to board games that I feel that way about. I'm holding out hope that we will play again, or will play with friends/visitors. 
  • Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective. This was the game I was most looking forward to, and it's turned out to be a total bust. It's beautifully designed, and the story and clues are very well written. But the entire game consists of reading (voluminous) clues -- and nothing else. There are no actions or decisions or movement. Just a lot of reading. It feels more like an assignment than a game. This was an expensive disappointment. I now also see that reviews of board games may be not be useful to me, as this game got rave reviews.
  • Banagrams. I love anagrams, but it turns out you can get too much of a good thing. I play (and am obsessed with) the New York Times' Spelling Bee daily, and I also play Wordscapes, and that's plenty of word games for now. It's possible when I finish Wordscapes -- I'm on level 5,400-something out of 6,000 -- I'll like Banagrams more.
  • Rummikub. I looked for games that are similar to Qwirkle, and ended up with Rummikub. Azul was also in the running, but the price was prohibitive. We haven't played this one yet, and I'm looking forward to it.


the unscented company for greener, scent-free products

I highly recommend The Unscented Company! Here's why.

Looking for a pump-bottle liquid soap, I was very surprised to find a total absence of unscented soap where I live. In a large supermarket and two drugstores, there was no unscented hand soap! I was even more surprised -- and disgusted -- to see that even baby products were not unscented. Why would you put artificial scents on a baby's skin??

I tried a hand soap that claimed to be lightly scented, but it was still too much scent -- which was predictable. Fibromyalgia gives me a hypersensitive sense of smell, plus scents bother my respiratory system, plus I have very sensitive skin. Plus I find the artificial scents used in most scented products unpleasant.

I gave the supposedly lightly scented product to a co-worker and my quest continued. 

In a neighbouring town -- which means 40 minutes away by car -- I stumbled on The Unscented Company's hand soap. It is (of course) unscented, contains no dyes, cleans well, rinses easily, and wasn't expensive, even in the small, independent drugstore.

When the bottle was almost empty, I found The Unscented Company's products at a few online retailers, but even better, I found that they sell direct as well! 

What really clinched it for me: they sell refills. This is something that should be so commonplace, yet is almost unheard of. To summarize:
* quality products
* no scent
* no dyes
* refillable containers
* no animal testing
* independent company
* made in Canada
* full ingredient disclosure

I compared prices, and some, such as laundry detergent, were a bit higher -- but only for the first purchase. Refills are very economical. And although it's not difficult to find unscented dish soap or laundry detergent in our area, I'd rather buy from a Canadian company that sells refillable products, than P&G or Unilever.

I bought:
- hand soap
- laundry detergent
- liquid dish soap
- refill packs for all of the above
- dishwasher pod

Everything has been very nice. I have the refill boxes in our big pantry. Each box has the number of plastic bottles that have been replaced. 

A reminder note about this blog: it is always ad-free. I do not post "affiliate links" or get freebies from companies I write about. Just the occasional thank you.


follow-up: response from pacific coastal airlines

This is a follow-up post to getting home: horrific customer service from pacific coastal airlines.

Tl;dr: Those are the rules. Too bad for you. Next time buy travel insurance.

Good afternoon, Laura

I wanted to write today to let you know your letters to [company's principals] were all received and forwarded to me so I could respond and address your concerns.

When I look at your letter and how your travel day unfolded, I can certainly appreciate that it must have been incredibly stressful, starting with checking in, in SFO, only to find your terminal had been changed.  I’m happy to see that United was able to find you another flight at 1130, but this certainly put a strain on your ability to make the flight out of the South Terminal.  Waiting for an hour for your baggage also didn’t help, and I’m sorry to see you had to wait that long to get your luggage.

As a traveller on 2 separate tickets (United and Pacific Coastal), unfortunately, neither airline is aware of the other booking and in each respective case, even though to you your itinerary has you going from San Francisco to Port Hardy, United sees you going from SFO to YVR and we see you as going from YVR to YZT.  Unfortunately, if one causes you to miss the other flight (even if the situation was reversed), the circumstances you were under, do not factor into the cancellation or check-in policy of the airline.

Attached is our rules around check-in close times (the same that were presented to you).  The reason we close check-in at 40 minutes, is so we can ensure an on-time departure.  It is at this time, that our pilots begin to finalize the flight details, looking at the  number of passengers checked in,  the checked bags and their weight, as well as any cargo and its weight.  Based on calculations they make, they then order fuel, the fuel truck comes (while bags are loaded) and then we board and depart.

Accepting new check-ins after the flight closes, would require them to start again and this would ultimately cause a delay.  If we miss our take-off slot at YVR, we could be waiting another 20-25 minutes on the ground, waiting for an opening, from Air Traffic Control.  This would burn fuel and also delay everyone on the plane into their final destination and could have a domino effect of people missing ferries or perhaps now a rental car office is closed etc.  As you can see, there are a lot of factors at play and we have to draw the line somewhere.  The line is 40 minutes and yes, we have denied someone check-in because they missed it by 1 minute.  As you were 10-minutes after flight-close time, while it may not seem like much, in the context of preparing the aircraft for departure, it is VERY late. 

I certainly sympathize and understand that why you arrived late was not your own fault, but rather that of the circumstances of your earlier travel in the day.  That, however, does not play a role in how our agents will (and did, in this case) handle your reservation.  For them to rebook you and collect the reservation reactivation fee is correct.  The alternative would have been a full forteiture of the ticket.  So that fee is actually a service to prevent that from happening. 

What we have here is what travel insurance is for.  Specifically trip interruption insurance.  This is for when a passenger has unforeseen expenses as a result of certain travel being disrupted (Cruise, train, ferry, airline) whereby the reason of the disruption is not attributable to the transportation provider but rather simply ‘circumstance’ – you having to take a later flight, bags taking 1 hour to come out etc.

Again, I’m sorry that we were not able to transport you to Port Hardy on June 12th.  Unfortunately, I am not able to oblige your request for a refund of the reactivation fee or reimburse you for your accommodation.



Customer Relations

I give them points for writing a personal letter that clearly shows that someone read my complaint, rather than a form letter, and for explaining why the rules exist, rather than just repeating the rule. 

The worst part of this is that I have to continue to fly on this airline, as they're the only one with service to Port Hardy. I'll be using them again in October, and it's going to hurt!


what i'm reading: four fish: the future of the last wild food

After reading a review of Paul Greenberg's Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food when it was published in 2010, I added the title to The List. When I read it recently, more than 10 years later, the subject matter had become so much more relevant to me, in a way I could not have imagined in 2010.

In Four Fish, Greenberg unpacks the histories of the salmon, bass, cod, and tuna -- the physical and biological histories of those animals, and the cultural, social, economic, and political histories of human's interactions with them. 

Each fish's story is told through a human element that brings it to life, and through Greenberg's personal connection to fish and fishing, making the stories accessible and engaging. 

And each story is complex and circuitous. Greenberg has a deft touch for imparting the salient bits, (mostly) without getting too bogged down in detail.

I live in salmon country

In the chapter on salmon, Greenberg travels to a remote area of Alaska, where an Indigenous nation is involved in the wild-salmon trade, attempting both sustainability and profitability. 

The story could have taken place in my own community. Living on Canada's far west coast, the salmon and the many ways people's lives are linked to it are ever-present.

Indigenous fishers; non-Indigenous fishers, both commercial and sport; the aquaculture (fish-farm) industry; government regulatory bodies (almost universally hated); conservationists; the tourism and hospitality industry; the food industry; casual environmentalists -- all have a stake in the future of this iconic fish, and each has a different perspective. And other than rapacious Food Inc companies whose practices are completely unsustainable, none of them is wrong. It's complicated, and there are no easy answers. 

Bluefin is the new whale

Greenberg argues passionately that the bluefin tuna should be a protected species, the way whales and dolphins are -- animals no longer thought of as legitimate targets for either hunting or food. The bluefin -- which is but a distant relative of the tuna many of us (including me) eat -- is almost extinct. 
The bluefin conservation advocates, often former tuna fishermen who have been able to pull themselves away from the lure of tuna's silver-ingot bodies and marbled-sirloin flesh, have tried all manner of spells to get those who eat tuna or those officials who legislate over them to somehow sit up and take similar notice -- to abstain from eating them or to pass enforceable regulation for the sake of their preciousness. It is this often-futile battle that is the most telling part of the tuna fishery today. It is the battle with ourselves. A battle between the altruism toward other species that we know we can muster and the primitive greed that lies beneath our relationship with the creatures of the sea.
Greenberg reviews how hunting whales -- how humans' very concept of the whale -- has changed over time, culminating in the end of whaling.
It was the broadest and most far-reaching act of kindness humanity has ever bestowed on another group of species. Though contested and embattled and fraught with disagreements that result in violations, this kindness has persisted. The whaling moratorium remains in effect to this day.
Shifting baselines

Four Fish gave me a name for a concept I have thought about many times: shifting baselines. Greenberg credits marine biologist Daniel Pauly with the term, and says he was struck by
both the profound significance as well as its relative invisibility in the contemporary news cycle.

The idea of shifting baseline is this: Every generation has its own, specific expectations of what "normal" is for nature, a baseline. One generation has one baseline for abundance while the next has a reduced version and the next reduced even more, and so on and so on until expectations of abundance are pathetically low.

Before Daniel Pauly expressed this generational memory loss as a scientific thesis, the fantastical catches of older fishermen could be written off as time-warped nostalgia. But Pauly has tabulated the historical catch data and shown that the good old days were in fact often much better. This is not nostalgia on the part of the old or lack of empathy on the part of the young. It is almost a willful forgetting -- the means by which our species, generation by generation, finds reasonableness amid the irrational destruction of the greatest natural food system on earth.
I can think of a dozen other applications of shifting baselines, from the price of gas to the health of public services to originality in writing and music. Applied to the wild, it is very, very sad.

Q: Which fish should you eat? A: It hardly matters.

Greenberg notes that the issues of the future of fish cannot be managed -- or even significantly impacted -- on the consumer level. I share this perspective on most environmental issues, and I appreciated the validation. 

If you eat fish and care about the planet, you are probably familiar with the Seafood Choices Alliance ratings of fish: fish designated environmentally safe to eat, fish that are on the brink of danger and should be eaten only rarely, and fish you should not eat at all. Greenberg reviews the positive impact this has made and concludes:
For in the end, this somewhat passive response to the global crisis in fisheries robs the conservation movement of the will to stage more radical, directed, and passionate action. Daniel Pauly, the author of the shifting-baselines theory and frequent critic of the limited views of the sustainable seafood movement, said as much in a recent paper. "The current faith in the magic of free-market mechanisms must be questioned," Pauly wrote. "Consumers should not be misled that a system of management or conservation based on purchasing power alone will adequately address the present dilemma facing fisheries globally."
Greenbery notes that when he would say he was writing a book about the future of fish, people everywhere would inevitably ask, "Which fish should I eat?" 

His conclusion: it doesn't much matter. Action must be taken far upstream, and on a much grander scale.

Practical suggestions and solutions

Greenberg closes the book with a set of principles that could steer humans away from the total destruction of the world's fish, while allowing us to harvest and consume fish sustainably. He writes:
For too long it has been entrepreneurs who have decided which species to domesticate and which to leave wild. Their decisions have been based on market principles and profit, and they have historically not consulted with the managers and biologists who study wild-fish dynamics. This is senseless. If we continue along this pathway, we will only destroy one food system and replace it with another, inferior one, just as we have already done in most of the world's freshwater lakes and rivers. We therefore need a set of principles that guide us forward with domestication, one that is inclusive of impacts on wild oceans. 
He then sets out five principles that would guide aquaculture into a new era. Much of it is already taking place, in tiny enterprises scattered around the globe. Will this trend reach a point of global sustainability? Is it even enough to be considered a trend?

The giant web that holds us all

Similar to another book I recently read and reviewedAnimal, Vegetable, Junk by Mark Bittman, Four Fish speaks to the interconnectedness of all living organisms on our planet. Both books reveal the utter foolishness of humans' attempts to interfere with that connectedness, and of the human belief that only more interference, often in the form of technology, can solve the problems that humans have created. 

Like Animal, Vegetable, JunkFour Fish reveals the breadth and depth of how humans have poisoned the Earth, or as Greenberg writes, "the loss of abundance and the greedy privatization, monopolization, and industrialization of fishing that caused it."


rotd: feminism is an endeavor to change

Revolutionary thought of the day:
Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth -- and in our minds, where it all begins and ends. That so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing; that everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A woman goes walking down a thousand-mile road. Twenty minutes after she steps forth, they proclaim that she still has nine hundred ninty-nine miles to go and will never get anywhere.

-- Rebecca Solnit, from "Pandora's Box and the Volunteer Police Force", 2014


things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #34

A customer said this.
I tell my daughter I love her every day. I told my mother on her death bed, I'm not going to do what you did. I'm going to raise my daughter with love. 

My mother told me she hated me. She told me I ruined her life. She told me I was worthless and stupid. This is what they told her in the residential school. This was all she knew.

She would make me clean. She would force me down on my hands and knees to scrub the floor with my bare hands. She would push my face in the bucket with detergent and yell that it wasn't clean enough yet, push my face into the floor, and shout, look what you did, look what you did, you worthless slob.

To this day the smell of Pinesol turns my stomach. It can trigger my PTSD. My house is very dirty! I don't care. My daughter and I clean it together once in a while. We try to make it fun.

It took a lot of therapy and reading and hard work to find my way past that. But I am determined not to pass this to my daughter. I raised her with love.

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #33

As I sat down to write this, I searched for the last "things i heard at the library" post, to get the number. Amazingly, today's post turns out to be a follow-up to the previous TIH! That was a surprise! And it makes writing this much easier.

July 2020:
I just heard a heartbreaking lament from one of our regular customers, who was here for curbside.

She told us that most people she knows do not have internet access or any TV service, and many do not have phones. They rely on library staff to suggest and order materials for them.

We assured her that we can still do that. We asked her to encourage folks to show up during curbside hours and we will find books and DVDs for them.

Then she said, "It's not just the boredom. It's the isolation. It's the friendship. We are a poor community, and this library is our lifeline. I would work on the jigsaw puzzle or read a magazine, but that was just an excuse to be among people, to see friendly faces, to connect. The other place we would hang out is the Salvation Army – also closed. Many people go to church for that reason only, to connect with people – also closed. We've been cut adrift. People are depressed and they're suffering."

She understands why we can't open our doors yet. She just wants us to know how much the library space is missed.

I share this [with library management] as a reminder, both of the great need for physical materials – a need not likely to go away, and of the service we provide that cannot fit through the takeout window.
July 2022:

I hadn't seen that customer again -- until yesterday. I hustled over to her, and greeted her warmly. We chatted a bit, and when it seemed appropriate, I reminded her of that conversation.
LK: Last time I saw you, you mentioned how difficult it was not to have the library and other places to hang out. All during the lockdown, I thought about you, wondered how you were doing. How did you end up getting through covid?

Customer: Do you know what I did? I adapted. I started watching Kanopy, I used all the stuff you can use at home. I started learning Spanish on Mango, looked for crafts in Creativebug, watched The Knowledge Network. I just started doing all the at-home library things I could find. It's still really hard. People have died. Our old routines are gone. But keeping my brain active -- that has really helped a lot. 
I could scarcely express how happy that made me! 

I knew that many library customers turned to online services and e-resources during covid. But although that occured throughout our regional system, I've always wondered if customers in our remote locations shared that experience. (I do see statistics, but that can't account for individual customers.) While our most vulnerable customers -- people without internet at home, and people without homes -- couldn't, this woman is not among the affluent and well-connected. And somehow, she did this. Our library helped her get through. So, so, so wonderful.

I told her we have in-person programming again, and invited her to stop by on a Wednesday night, when we always have something for adults -- a movie, or board games, puzzles, sometimes a special event. She was skeptical, unsure if she was ready for that -- which was also good information for me to have -- as we struggle with low turnout. But wow, did this ever make my day!


so many left behind: the ever-widening digital divide

Last year, while attempting to get a parking pass during our vacation -- without a phone, my phone having been fried by an update -- I got caught in circuitous and frustrating encounter with information and technology gaps.

About a year later, navigating the brave new world of do-it-yourself airport screening, I used quite a few resources -- skills, devices, time, and patience -- to find, navigate, and complete the covid requirements for both US and Canada cross-border travel.

I deal with technology every day, and I'm about as confident a tech user as you will find. Yet each of these experiences was complicated, time-consuming, and frustrating.

The digital divide is an abyss

How do people without digital skills get by? What happens to folks who can't navigate these mazes? 

There are some analog workarounds, required by accessibility laws, but can you find them? How do you find them if you aren't online?

There are people you can hire to expedite these steps for you. But if you're not digitally literate, you probably can't find them and you almost certainly can't afford them.

There may be someone in your life who can ask for help. But what if everyone in your life is from a similar background and social standing, and also lack these skills? 

If you're lucky, someone will suggest you go to the public library. You can try that, and hope that resources haven't been slashed to such an extent that no one has the time and focus to help you. (Remember the scene in "I, Daniel Blake," where other library users help Daniel get online?) 

These not-really-options don't factor in the shame and embarrassment that, for so many people, comes with asking for help, and they certainly don't factor in anxiety, mental confusion, and the exhaustion of poverty.

The digital divide is not about age

In library school, we talked a lot about the "digital divide" -- the gap between those who have access to technology and those who don't. As time goes on, this gap has become a canyon, and it's getting wider and deeper all the time. 

There's a mistaken impression that the digital divide is one of age, with seniors on the have-not side. This is an ageist assumption that should have been retired a long time ago. Baby boomers are in their late 60s and 70s now!

Research (in a US context) shows the percentage of tech users over 65 is still slightly lower than that of other age groups, but the gap is shrinking all the time. In Canada, the percentage of people over the age of 65 using the internet doubled between 2007 and 2016. Stats Can notes (emphasis mine):

The findings suggest that age is a primary determinant of Internet use among seniors, but that differences in educational attainment and other demographic characteristics are also important. . . .  Among young seniors with more advantaged characteristics, Internet use is presently at near-saturation levels and is comparatively high among their counterparts in older age groups as well. Among disadvantaged seniors, Internet use is far lower among younger seniors and sharply declines among older groups.

There's also an assumption that "young people" are somehow born knowing how to use technology. This assumption is even less valid than the one about seniors. Ask anyone who teaches in a low-income area. Knowing how to use a smartphone and check Facebook does not constitute digital literacy.

None of us are born with skills. If you grow up in a home without internet access and computers -- or you don't even have a home to grow up in -- how would you become digitally literate? 

The American Library Association defines digital literacy as "the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills." This includes:

  • How to type on a keyboard
  • How to use a basic word-processing program
  • How to save a document and how to find it later
  • How to search the internet – not Facebook. Indeed, understanding the difference between the internet and Facebook requires digital literacy. Facebook has capitalized on the general lack of digital skills by creating an environment that requires skills to leave

It's all the same divide

The digital divide is the same divide that plagues all aspects of our capitalist society. It all comes down to money.

For a time I worked in a library in one of the lowest-income areas of Ontario. Families would rush to the library after work -- because the children's homework was only available online. 

Every day, I would watch in horror and frustration as children and teens would lose their work because they didn't know how to save a document, or didn't remember that their work wouldn't be saved on a public computer. Of course library staff tried to help, but there are many customers, not many staff.

Analog shouldn't be dead, but it is

Obviously, services of every kind have moved online. This has many positive impacts, as the internet has expanded our reach in ways unimaginable only decades earlier. 

But at the same time, analog options have disappeared, and this trend continues to accelerate and expand. Some more recent developments include:

  • Two-step verification, requiring internet access and a mobile phone. These are both expensive propositions, out of reach of many.
  • Needing an email address to open an email account. What do first-time emailers do? Librarians have collected some solutions, but most people don't have that information.
  • In Canada, printed tax forms are no longer available publicly. They are available by special request only. 
  • To enter Canada from another country (including if you are Canadian), you must use an app. Not can use an app; you must use it. Using the app requires a truckload of embedded competencies: you have to scan your passport and upload your covid passport, among other things. Like most apps, there are recursive pieces, opaque bits, decisions to be made -- and frustration, including for the most adept users.
  • The analog tax: making a flight reservation or booking a rental car by phone costs more than booking it yourself online. 

  • Pay-for-tech-help. Have you bought a TV lately? You can't just plug it in and watch TV. You need an app, an account, and -- if you're not careful and savvy -- you are giving a tech giant access to all your data. Without digital skills, chances are you can't even navigate the landing page, and think you have access only through the tech company's portal.
  • And of course, covid. As public schools went online, what happened to students without home internet access? Mostly, they disappeared.

This is a safety issue, as people without digital skills are infinitely more vulnerable to phishing and other fraud.

This is a poverty issue, as children from less advantaged families will fall ever-farther behind, until the gap is simply insurmountable to all but the extremely gifted. This is the creation of a new kind of underclass.

This is a labour issue, as companies find ever more ways to hire fewer people and force consumers to do unpaid work. You may be so accustomed to this that you don't even realize it's happened. People used to answer the phone and ask "How may I direct your call?". Self-checkout would have been unthinkable. Who wants to work as an unpaid cashier?

But more than anything, this is an issue of social exclusion. Those without digital skills are increasingly confined to a smaller range of options, and that sphere only continues to shrink.

I am not anti technology. I'm anti exclusion and anti poverty.

Those of us who use computers as part of our jobs, and are privileged to have leisure time, have picked up our digital skills over time, often barely registering that it was happening. 

People who don't encounter computer skills on a regular basis, and whose use is limited to time in a public library -- or not all -- don't get the sustained, daily repetition that builds solid competencies. These may be tradespeople, people who work outdoors, or people who grew up in homes where parents did not use technology.

In a society that valued all people equally, it would not be difficult to change this. It would be complex and multifaceted, but we could significantly shrink the gap. 

We would need:

  • Double or triple or quadruple funding for the public library, and use most of it for high-speed internet and public-use computers.
  • Require governments and companies to always retain analog options, and provide disincentives to do otherwise.
  • Require businesses to maintain minimum staffing levels at touchpoints that currently assume that everyone is DIY.

As a librarian, I am aware of many programs, funded by sources such as the United Way or directly from the province, that address these issues. They are excellent and important programs, but they are short-term, and very limited in scope and reach. They are a tiny drop in an ocean of need.