too much honesty can be a very bad thing: a story about a birthday present

This post is written with permission.
Recently on Facebook I announced that Allan, my partner, turns 60 this year, and he has already chosen a very special birthday present. We are going to buy him an electric guitar and amp, and he's going to learn how to play an instrument for the first time. 

I'm super jazzed about this! I love that Allan wants to learn something new, that he wants to be more in touch with music, one of his great passions. I also love it because it speaks well for his mental health. Allan lives with depression, and this is a good barometer of how well it's managed right now.

But besides all that, Allan is incredibly difficult to buy gifts for, and his birthday has been a source of hurt feelings for me in the past. I would think long and hard, plan and shop, only to receive a tepid response, a polite thank you, and I'd know the idea fell flat. Nothing I gave him ever got a "wow". Anything "wow," he just buys for himself.

I've been aware that this dynamic touched on some bad memories from childhood: my father would reject gifts from me and my siblings. Birthdays and Father's Day was an occasion for him to tell us we bought the wrong size, or spent too much money, or didn't understand what he asked for, or whatever we did "wrong". Yeah.

That's the backdrop. 

And this culminated in the Great DFW Debacle of 2003.

Allan's favourite author is David Foster Wallace, and he is a huge fan of Infinite Jest. Allan's also a collector-slash-hoarder. In his late 30s he was collecting (among other things) different editions of Jest. The British edition, a paperback with a new cover, a copy Wallace signed for him at a reading, and so on. I had heard Allan talk about an edition of Jest that contained a printing error. It had cache because it was from a limited print run, the typo being fixed in current printings.

Months before Allan's birthday, I hunted for a signed copy of this edition. I emailed with several people, found a copy in the UK, double and triple confirmed that the typo on whatever page was indeed there, and bought it. I had never done anything like that before, and I was so pleased with myself! At last, I had an awesome gift for Allan. I also told him that I finally had a special gift that he would love. Told him more than once, because me. A lot of build-up. Sigh.

After much anticipation, the big day arrived. Allan opened his gift, looked at me blankly and said, "Why did you buy me this?"

. . . .

. . . .

He already owned a copy of Jest with the typo. 

I was heartbroken. 

He said, "Well, signed is nice. I didn't have this edition signed." 

Too late.

I decided, that's it, I'm done. I'm not doing this anymore. Here's a gift card or some cash, go shopping. To me this felt thoughtless and generic, but over the years, he has enjoyed it.

* * *

When Allan turned 50, I created a scavenger hunt for cash in various denominations hidden all over the house. He mostly suffered through it. He loved finding the money, but didn't enjoy playing the game. Back to gift cards.

Last year I actually gave Allan a gift he truly enjoyed. I had taken a wonderful short city trip with a very dear friend who I hadn't seen in many years. I also travel a bit for work. Allan was envious. So for his birthday last year I arranged a short trip to Victoria, and he really enjoyed it. That was quite expensive (rental car and hotel) and we couldn't do it that annually. So, a great idea, but a one-off.

I also want to add that Allan usually makes a big fuss over my birthday and it's always great. This issue only goes in one direction!

So that's the backstory. The announcement of a special gift for his 60th -- already exactly what he wants -- was more than exciting. It was a huge relief.

* * * *

A postscript. Some months after the DFW Debacle, in a Red Sox discussion forum that Allan belongs to, someone posted a question: "My wife gets me birthday presents I don't really like. Should I tell her?" Allan posted a reply: No. Do not. Under no circumstances should you ever tell her. 

Correct answer.


in which an email reminds me to resurrect a very old post: join athena to change amazon

Do you support Athena?

Athena is a broad coalition of people and organizations who seek to change Amazon's practices through a variety of tools and tactics, including from the inside. 

In a braindump called the post of orphaned notes, I found this.

athena is organizing against amazon, and you can help -- even if you use amazon. especially if you use amazon.

That's the title of an empty post, sitting in drafts since December 2020. When I received an email from Athena about Juneteenth, I thought it was finally time to post about them.

Athena invites everyone -- Amazon workers, customers, shareholders, and anti-Amazon activists -- to join their coalition to improve Amazon's working conditions, business practices, and environmental practices, and to push back against Amazon surveillance.

Fighting a behemoth as powerful as Amazon is akin to overthrowing an empire. Every legal  option must be on the table. (Although no empire has ever been overthrown entirely by legal means -- since the empire controls the law.) Certainly when it comes to a corporate empire, boycotts alone are pointless.

A personal boycott of Amazon, like any personal boycott, is fine if it works for you. I have a few personal boycotts myself. But I don't delude myself: my not shopping at Walmart makes no difference to Walmart. 

No boycott could never be widespread enough to make even a tiny dent in Amazon's corporate empire. It's also not reasonable to ask people to pay more for a product offered at a lower price elsewhere, or to pay for shipping when a free-shipping option is available, or to track everything Amazon owns, including their streaming platform. 

Then there are folks who rely on Amazon. "Shop local" works if you live in a big metropolitan area, but for many people who live in rural and remote areas, boycotting Amazon would be a difficult sacrifice. I do "try local first," as we say here. And I do buy directly from companies' websites whenever possible. Amazon is not my first go-to. But it's an option that I can't afford to ignore.

That's why I support Athena.

The Athena coalition has come together on these principles.

Corporations like Amazon are dangerous to our communities, our democracy, and our economy. Together, we need to:

  • Govern our own communities. It’s we who should decide what is best for us in our communities — not big corporations. We can stop Amazon’s sweetheart tax deals from local governments, draining of public resources, and big-footing into our neighborhoods with no regard for the rest of us.

  • Put our health before their bottom line. Amazon relies on, and profits off, the oil and gas that poisons our communities and worsens our climate crisis. It’s time to end that.

  • Shield our local economies, so they can thrive.  Amazon is so big it can prey on and manipulate customers, small businesses, and help themselves to tax money that should go to schools, housing, transit, and whatever else our communities need. No more.

  • Protect people from Amazon’s dangerous surveillance. We must block Amazon from selling and using technologies to track us at home and work, mining our personal data for profit, and fueling harmful and discriminatory policing of immigrants and communities of color.

Here's Athena's Juneteenth email that prompted me to finally post about this.

* * * *

Every year, through MLK Day, Black History Month, and now Juneteenth, Amazon plans to cover its website, pitch newspapers, and run ads celebrating itself for what it claims to be its commitment to Black people, from its workers, to small businesses and its customers.

This Juneteenth, Amazon decided to stay quiet, knowing that this movement will continue to spotlight their offensive celebrations (like offering dress up day or chicken and waffles instead of a day off and attempting to put Jeff Bezos’ name alongside that of MLK) and redirect back to the how Amazon is part of, serves and chooses to profit from anti-Black systems.

Here are some things Amazon could have not ignored on Juneteenth:

  • Amazon can stop supporting Cop City. Amazon sits on Atlanta Police Foundation’s board that is proposing to destroy the equivalent of 298 football fields in Weelaunee Forest to build a mock city near one of America’s largest Black populations. The purpose of this city is to train police across the nation on military tactics against civilian populations and activists, and people are fighting back.

  • Amazon could end its Ring-police partnerships. Amazon collaborates with over 2,500 police departments across the US, providing them with warrantless access to footage from Ring cameras, giving police unprecedented power. Sometimes even without consent from owners of Ring devices. During the George Floyd uprisings, the LAPD was found to request footage seeking surveillance of protestors. Ring’s privacy protections are so bad that Amazon had to pay over $30M for illegally surveilling its own customers, including children.

  • Amazon can stop paying Black workers less than white workers. NELP found that Amazon is paying Black workers 63 cents on every dollar paid to their white coworkers in its Shakopee, Minnesota warehouse.

  • Amazon can stop targeting Black neighborhoods for pollution. Breathing exhaust from high concentrations of vehicles puts people, especially elders and kids, at increased risk of asthma, cancer and heart attacks and may cause premature births and miscarriages in parents. Consumer Reports and The Guardian recently showed how Amazon opens their facilities deep inside Black and brown communities.

  • Amazon can stop targeting the unhoused. In King County, Washington, home to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, Black adults are evicted almost 6x more than white adults, contributing to Black adults making up nearly 30% of the unhoused, which is 4x more than their percentage of the population. When its city council considered a very small tax on ultra wealthy corporations to support affordable housing programs, Amazon threatened to pause its expansion, and heavily leaned on local government until it was killed.

  • Amazon can stop targeting Black worker organizers. Amazon can end its pattern of targeting Black workers for termination and retaliation for worker organizing. From the peak of COVID lockdown, Chris Smalls was one of several Black workers being fired after advocating for safe warehouses, all the way to just last week when Amazon was forced to reinstate Jennifer Bates, who it illegally fired after her shareholder activism.

  • Amazon can end its plan to destroy sacred South African land. Amazon is pushing through against the will of indigenous people, to build a massive site on top of sacred land commemorating one of the first African fights against colonialism.

  • Amazon can stop funding racist lawmakers. When we found that many January 6th insurrection supporters were lawmakers supported by Amazon, Amazon vowed to end donations to them. That is until it didn’t: right before elections.

  • Amazon can stop helping ICE. Black immigrants are 7% of the undocumented population but over 20% of those in deportation proceedings. By providing the Department of Homeland Security specialized cloud computing technology, Amazon is directly fueling and profiting from ICE’s inhuman detention and deportation system.

What not to miss this week:

  • Bernie Sanders launches Senate Investigation into Amazon labor practices. On Tuesday morning, Sen Sanders, as chair of the Senate Committee on Healthy, Education, Labor and Pension, launched an investigation into workplace health and safety practices at Amazon.

  • NY Warehouse Worker Protection Act in Effect! Starting this week, all Amazon workers across New York State are protected by the WWPA, which greatly limits Amazon’s ability to use quotas and surveillance to push workers into serious injuries. ALIGN NY, Amazon Labor Union, Teamsters and RWDSU led the way to this victory.

  • Keep Standing with Writers. In LA and NYC, join picket lines with Writers Guild of America to win a fair contract with Amazon Studios and others. RSVP to your local picket location.

Go here to join Athena.


what i'm reading: the story of jane: the legendary underground feminist abortion service

When I first got involved in pro-choice activism, way back in 1981*, I heard about a group called Jane. Or maybe the Jane Collective. Or maybe Call Jane. No one knew for certain what they were called, only what they did. The women of Jane learned how to perform abortions, and helped women safely terminate pregnancies when abortion was still illegal in the United States. 

That was the sum total of what I knew about Jane. 

Now that abortion is again illegal in many US states, and impossible to access in most others -- and now that people outside the reproductive rights community have finally woken up to this reality -- Jane is in the spotlight. There are now several movies about Jane, both documentaries and feature films, many long feature articles have been written, and there's more than one book about it.

This book -- The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service, published in 1995, reissued in 2019 -- was written by a member of Jane. It's both a history lesson and a how-to guide. 

Putting abortion on the agenda

The Story of Jane paints a very clear picture of the landscape of women's health and reproductive freedom -- and the lack thereof -- at that time. Everyone concerned about reproductive rights should read this book, if only for that reason. 

As I've written countless times in this blog, and as countless other movement activists say, abortion is the sine qua non of liberation for women (and any person who can become pregnant). Without the ability to control our reproduction, we are slaves -- to our bodies, to governments, to other people's ideologies. The Story of Jane is a stark reminder of this.

But here's something that may surprise you: previous to the women's liberation movement (as it was then called), abortion and birth control were not talked about as women's issues. Although vast social revolutions -- the civil rights movement and the peace movement -- were re-shaping society, contraception, abortion, and violence against women** were considered personal issues, or medical issues. Women weren't part of the conversation. Or there was no conversation at all.

Feminist consciousness raising -- an instrument of the women's liberation movement -- brought a new perspective: the personal is political. Seen through this lens, the epidemic of violence against women, the lack access to birth control, and the criminalization of abortion, were not personal obstacles to be borne or somehow overcome. They became social and political issues, central to women's autonomy and personhood, necessary for all people to fully participate in the world. 

Jane was part of that change.

Two intertwined stories

This book is not only a history lesson. It's an inquiry into the nature of activism, feminism, and radical transformation. In a sense, The Story of Jane is two stories.

One story is the very practical aspects of how a group of women with no prior training in healthcare came to provide an underground, illegal service that offered counseling, abortion, and after-care -- that eventually performed 11,000 safe, illegal abortions -- that inspired "Jane" services in other cities -- and that was determined that the process itself would give women full control and agency through the entire experience. 

The women of Jane needed to answer innumerable questions and navigate countless challenges.

How to reach women who wanted to terminate pregnancies.

How to provide counseling that was effective and nonjudgemental.

Where services could be provided.

How to keep themselves safe while they engaged in these illegal activities.

How to find and safely integrate new members, as the service grew.

How to find a person who could perform safe abortions.

How to assist in procedures.

And eventually, how to perform abortions themselves.

The other story is about the power dynamics, and the potential for transformation, in radical activism. The women of Jane wanted to create a group that didn't replicate the power hierarchies of the larger society, one in which decisions were made through consensus by a group of equals. What they created was definitely not the former, and not quite the latter. 

This part of the story resonated deeply with me. Readers who have been involved with radical  grassroots activism, especially in the creation of something new, are likely to recognize themselves, too.  

Women as the authors of their own lives

Everything Jane did was grounded in feminist theory. Abortion wasn't something done to a woman. It was more than a choice: the woman was an active participant in the process.

Until the late 1960s, modern medicine was almost exclusively a male domain. Patients had virtually no decision-making power, and female patients were the bottom of the food chain. This most definitely included OB/GYN care.

Griswold, the landmark 1965 Supreme Court decision that legalized contraception, applied only to married couples. Single women were prohibited from accessing birth control until 1972 (Eisenstadt v. Baird). Most women didn't even understand their own anatomy and physiology, and there was little or no opportunity for education. 

The women's liberation movement changed that. Jane was on the very forward edge of that transformation.

The women of Jane were determined that a "Jane abortion" was not only physically safe, but was also a positive experience. It offered not only safety, but agency. It brought (in their own words) "a feminist perspective which [women] could use as a tool to understand and improve their lives". Jane "wanted women to grow from their contact with the service". 

In this new paradigm, the decision to terminate a pregnancy had the potential to be incredibly empowering. As one Jane client put it, "I've just had an illegal abortion and it was the best medical experience I've ever had". 

Groups are hard

I was very interested in Jane's group dynamics, which I recognized from my own experiences with both the Haven Coalition, a network supporting women traveling to New York City to access abortion services, and the War Resisters Support Network, which supported U.S. soldiers opposed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. 

Anyone who has been involved with complex, high-stakes, and potentially dangerous activism will find the stories of how Jane shared information and made decisions edifying, and possibly validating. I especially related to the structure that evolved organically (and not necessarily intentionally): a series of concentric circles, based on who was entrusted with certain information.

As a feminist organization, Jane struggled with the dynamics that would churn through all feminist organizations of its day: it was mostly white, heteronormative, and middle class. I remember a Haven member observing that Haven was their most consistent cross-class experience. We were mostly women of privilege helping mostly women without. This was part of Jane as well.

That imbalance creates a lot of opportunity for awareness and growth. It can sometimes be awkward and it can sometimes be unintentionally offensive. It necessitates a lot of difficult conversations. It can be challenging, both to live with and to try to change.

Some members of Jane were people of colour, and at least one woman of colour was part of the inner circle, and in the book, she attests to the true sisterhood that existed among the group. But of course her presence didn't doesn't change the basic dynamics of power, class, and privilege.

How they got away with it... until they didn't

Jane operated in a kind of netherworld of open secrets. Thousands of women found Jane, through cryptic flyers, ads in the alternative press, and word of mouth. Hospitals and physicians, ministers and lawyers, police and professors: all referred women to Jane. The Chicago police looked the other way, and police department employees and the families of police officers used the service. 

Jane adopted many complicated practices to keep themselves and their patients safe. But Jane was heavily surveilled; eventually one of their locations was raided and some members were arrested. The story of the arrest and aftermath are gripping and sometimes ironically amusing.

Once the women of Jane learned that the police raid was not ordered from above -- and in fact "if certain higher-ups had been on duty that day, the bust would not have happened" -- the group swung back into action. It was a reduced group, but it survived and continued its work. That takes some kind of courage.

The Story of Jane is full of surprising and enlightening details. Here are some things I learned.

* Members of the clergy were integral to the early pro-abortion-rights movement. I knew that faith leaders were important in both the civil rights and peace movements, but I didn't realized they had been so active in the early fight for abortion rights, too. Ministers referred women to Jane and other illegal alternatives, and were able to use their moral standing -- their bullet-proof vestments -- to push for reform.

* During the raid and arrests, the police kept demanding, "Where is he? Where is the doctor? Where is he?". But there was no "he". The police could not conceive that this was all taking place without a doctor, and in fact without any men at all.

* At the time of the raid and arrest, hundreds of women were waiting for Jane abortions. Jane members called each one to discuss their options. Abortion clinics in New York and Washington DC, where abortions were already legal, said, "If your women can get to us, we'll give them free abortions." 

* When an experimental abortion procedure became available in a different city, about 20 Jane clients agreed to try it. Jane chartered a bus and the women travelled together. The opposition was huge, vocal, and borderline violent -- and from within the abortion-rights movement. The women on the bus became a team, determined to continue, and supported each other throughout the experience. This was a fascinating and largely unknown piece of movement history.

Words of their own

In the epilogue, I appreciated Kaplan's analysis of Roe v. Wade, what it was and was not. 

Roe was never feminist. It was a validation of the rights of doctors to make decisions for their patients. It was not a validation of a woman's right to decide whether and when to bear a child. 

I'll end this review with two quotes from Kaplan's book. This is the final paragraph:
The service embodied a shift in consciousness, from asking for something to doing it ourselves. Deborah told me that she tries to convey to her students that if a thing needs to be done, we can do it, figure it out, step by step. We in Jane learned that social change is not a gift given by leaders and heroes, but is accomplished by ordinary people working together. We make it happen by what we choose to do. 
And this, a member reflecting on her decision to become involved.
I was . . . a law-abiding citizen with a fairly strong belief in the rule of law. It [being involved in Jane] gave me a new image of myself, not only of doing something that was against the law, but, more important, being part of a group of people taking matters into their own hands, because the law was not meeting their needs.

* In 1981 I attended pro-choice actions, but wasn't yet an organizer. The main focus of my activism at that time was anti-apartheid. I became a pro-choice organizer in 1985 or 1986.

** The expressions "domestic violence," "relationship violence," and "intimate partner violence" were not used at this time. In the larger world, this abuse was called "wife beating". People in the movement called it "violence against women".


rip cormac mccarthy: an indelible impression, for better or worse

The recent death of Cormac McCarthy has me thinking about his dark genius, and my contrary views of his best (and worst) writing.

I know exactly when and how I discovered McCarthy. In the early 1990s, I was volunteering, and later teaching, at a New York City youth centre called The Door. Another teacher there was reading All The Pretty Horses, which had just been published. The teacher, who was also an artist, named McCarthy as his favourite writer. It was a rave review, and I picked up the book.

The beauty of the language stunned me. In those days I read mostly fiction, and I hadn't come across any contempotary fiction that sounded like this -- spare, rhythmic, majestic, dark, brutal, unstinting in both violence and beauty. I heard echoes of Faulkner, but brought into a new world: Faulkner as McCarthy's literary grandfather. 

Saul Bellow, another of my touchstones at the time, wrote of McCarthy's "absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences". Reading McCarthy, I found myself re-reading certain sentences, saying them aloud, turning over the words, savoring and marveling at the beauty -- as I do when I read Shakespeare. 

I went back to McCarthy's earlier work, and read Blood Meridian, Child of God, and Suttree, then bought and read The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998) as soon as they came out. Along with All The Pretty Horses, this is the Border Trilogy, a masterpiece of American fiction. 

There are a few scenes in The Crossing, and one scene in particular, that I have never forgotten -- although I wish I could. Reading it hurt physically, a pain my chest like a heartbreak. To this day, it hurts to think about. I loved these books, but I hated the terrible pictures they put in my head. It's through McCarthy that I discovered that violence against animals is the one thing I cannot read about.

Then McCarthy stopped publishing for a while, and I forgot that he used to be one of my favourite writers.

Then came the two books that are said to be his masterpieces: No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006). I tried them both and could. not. read. them. The writing seemed like self-parody, the creepy darkness an overdone gimmick. It was if McCarthy decided to write a McCarthyesque novel. You want dark? I'll give you dark. You want gothic? I'll out gothic the gothic. I'll push all the Cormac McCarthy buttons, string them all together, and vomit the results onto the page. The critical raves baffle me. 

I'm sad that these are his most famous works, and also mystified that they are considered his best. I may re-read the Border Trilogy to recall the tremendous beauty of his writing. It can't hurt any more than it already does.


a garden that is exactly the right size + an update on my worms

In southern Ontario, I put seedlings in the ground, watered them, and they produced and produced and produced. I gave vegetables to co-workers, came up with recipes, and donated to food banks. My garden-ettes were tiny but mighty.

Two years ago, I attempted the same here in Vancouver Island North and it led to absolutely nothing: in which the cool coastal climate kicks my ass: my first #gardenfail. I carefully cultivated seedlings indoors, only to see them die the moment they were put in the ground. Now I know why so many people here have greenhouses in their backyards.

After that disappointment, I took a year off, and didn't plant anything last year. 

This year we started a seed library at the Port Hardy library branch. It's been super popular, and it inspired me to checkout a few seed packets. 

In response to my various challenges, a friend suggested I try container gardening. It's a brilliant idea: easier on my knees, no need to dig up weeds to clear a space, and almost no weeding. It also feels much easier -- true to its name, it feels more contained.

I started very simple: three plants, and three inexpensive, non-decorative pots. I can imagine a gorgeous array of containers of all different shapes and designs, which beautifully fits my aesthetics. But minimal investment will cut down on potential disappointment, so I'm keeping it super simple, at least for now. 

I planted beets, carrots, and snap peas. 

I got an assist from my very own worm compost, and some chicken wire leftover from our attempts to keep Cookie at home.

Today I started the process of hardening off the seedlings, something I didn't know about on my first go-round. 

While in the process of moving the plants outside and in again, I discovered this: snap peas!

Maybe there's hope? As the Magic 8-Ball says, reply hazy, try again.

Nothing's hazy about the worms, though. They are thriving! My first harvest, in September 2022, produced about one kilo of rich, black compost. 

Then in April of this year, we harvested more than twice that amount! So I must be doing something right.

I found a great supplier in Alberta, cutting out thousands of kilometres of shipping, not to mention incompetence. I also resolved a few unknowns and settled into a routine that seems to keep the little guys very happy.

We're using the worm compost for new grass seed, Allan's attempt at reviving the raspberry patch, and of course, my little seedlings. The worms are great incentive to keep going with the container gardening.