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February 18, 2020

Gleanings

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February 13, 2020

I Know What I’m Doing

There are lots of memes and online posts where somebody writes about having no idea what they’re doing, but they’re doing it anyway, pushing through, persisting, and as someone who loves the idea of process, obviously I am pretty fond of this idea. “I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m doing it anyway,” could have been the tagline for this blog throughout its many evolutions over the last twenty (20!) years, and maybe the tagline for my whole life….but I wonder if too often we (me?) are focusing too much on the first half of the idea and obfuscating the second clause. It’s the doing it anyway that’s the point, instead of the undermining of our expertise. There are undoubtedly people who know exactly what they’re doing and who don’t do anything at all, and so at least you’re not in that boat, is what I’m saying. And that it’s only by “doing it anyway” that you’re ever going to figure out what you’re doing at all, and sometimes this is even possible. Not even in the “fake it ’til you make it” way (which is also a very good technique, so I’m not trying to undermine it) but for real. “I know exactly what I’m doing,” is a thought that really does occur to me from time-to-time (albeit never about sourdough), and it’s so empowering when it happens. To feel good and confident about a thing you have made, and not even be pretending—or is this just what it feels like to be 40?

February 12, 2020

The Skin We’re In, by Desmond Cole

It makes sense that a writer who has insisted on blurring lines between journalism and activism would create a book that’s such a powerful blend of reporting and memoir, and it’s the extraordinary framing of his story that helps makes Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In a rich and enveloping read.

“A Year of Black Resistance and Power” is the book’s subtitle (except, YIKES, it almost wasn’t), and indeed, this is the story of 2017, which was two years after Cole’s Toronto Life cover story about his experiences with carding and the Toronto police force, which elevated his profile as a writer and an activist. Except that it’s not just the story of 2017, which is the book’s greatest strength, the way the single year frames the work, but Cole moves forward and backward in time to contextualize his stories, using experiences from his own life growing up Black in Canada, and also details from the historical record. In the book’s first section, he references an 18th century bylaw in Shelburne Nova Scotia “forbidding Negro dances and Negro Frolikcks in this town” in the story of Toronto artist John Samuels, whose gallery space was raided by the police and was physically attacked by them on the eve of the New Year 2017.

“White supremacy, which informs and fuels anti-Black racism, is an insatiable force White supremacy is never personal, never individual, never isolated. The historic problems I explore in this book are not a matter of some police being too rough or some government programs being too poorly funded, They have nothing to do with the political leaning of a particular government or the intentions of powerful people. We’re talking about a system of power that seeks to benefit white people above all others.”

You can’t make this stuff, I guess is what I mean. How a single year can be picked out of the air to demonstrate the ways the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism and white supremacy in Canada. In the school system—Cole gives examples of a six-year-old girl put into shackles by police, and the appalling behaviour (and even worse, refusal to accept responsibility for it) by a York Region school board trustee, and this is only February. In March, police officers across Canada rise up in support of an Ottawa police officer charged with fatally beating a man on his doorstep. In April, Cole leaves his column at the Toronto Star after being called out for his activism after demonstrating at a police board meeting, never mind that his white colleagues at the paper have been lauded for such things—and in this chapter, he connects police surveillance of Black and Indigenous people to a tradition of slavery, “suggesting that our very presence as free people on the street is suspicious and in need of investigation.”

In June 2017, Black Lives Matter Toronto blocks the Pride Parade in the city, and here Cole makes the connection between Black activists and the LGBTQ movement, especially pertaining to their relationships with police—and the way that Black people been left out from the story of gay rights, as symbolized by Blockarama, a celebration of Black queer culture since 1999, getting squeezed out of Pride events in favour of corporate sponsors. The Black Lives Matter protesters didn’t just “show up” to Pride, Cole shows, but instead they’ve always been there, and in 2017, they just insisted on finally taking up their space.

July is #Canada150, celebrating what Cole calls “this round number of colonial conquest.” He reaches back to 2011 to write about the advent of Idle No More, noting the parallels with Black Lives Matter, and explores the Indigenous resistance to Canada’s anniversary celebrations, including the tipi that was built on Parliament Hill (but not before RCMP officers had arrested demonstrators—are you seeing the theme?). Later that same month, Cole, who was born in Alberta and lived there until he was five, travels to Western Canada to learn more about police carding practices in the province, and learns that Indigenous women are disproportionately affected.

“My year had begun with news of a police attack on a young Black gallery owner,” writes Cole at the beginning of August. “I thought then about how attacks like this happen every day, that they are too common to be documented and investigated.” It was during summer of 2017 that media began reporting on Dafonte Miller who was brutally beaten with a pipe by an off-duty police officer and his brother in Whitby, Ontario. Miller sustained horrific injuries, and lost an eye, and for months, there was no investigation by the SIU, which is what’s called for when a police officer is involved in a death, injury or assault of a civilian. Cole would help bring the case to public attention, and also to the Toronto Police Services Board, where he’d be thrown out of a meeting and bring 100 protesters to another the following month. It would come out that the men accused of Miller’s assault were the sons of a veteran Toronto police officer who would be put under investigation himself for interfering with the investigation of his sons.

Not shockingly, police violence doesn’t end with the summer, and Cole writes about the way that racist police violence, to the majority of white Canadians, “is the cost of being ‘free'” And then later that September, he joins demonstrators to block one of Toronto’s busiest intersections to protest the deportation of of a wife and mother for overstaying her visa. “For as long as Canada has been a country, it has gone to great lengths to keep Black people out, and to deport thousands who arrive,” Cole writes. Slavery was legal in British North America until 1834, Cole reminds us, and he notes that the Underground Railroad ran both ways, and also that Black Loyalists who fled north at the Revolutionary War had their homes burned, were driven out of town in places in Nova Scotia.

“In October of 2017, the RCMP detained 1,755 people who had entered Quebec from New York State without permission from the Canadian government.” Cole makes a distinction between immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in general and those who are Black, noting that “the mass arrival of Black people to Canada has historically been marked by the strictest regulation our government can design.” In the 1950s and 1960s, a demand for cheap labour brought Black Caribbean domestic workers to Canada, and racist rules would exclude them from more lucrative professions once they’d been established here. Later that month, Cole travels to North Preston, NS, to learn about racial profiling and racist stigma in that community, and the struggle for Black life in other Canadian places. (Though this bit of the book really surprised me, because I’d only heard of North Preston through Shauntay Grant’s picture book Up Home, which paints the community as such a vibrant and special place, and I love that that’s the only story I knew.)

November was when the debate finally came to a head over community policing in Toronto schools, a situation born out of rising school violence in the early 2000s, which Cole connects to a radical change (and subsequent decrease) in the school funding formula during the 1990s—which seems incredibly pertinent at a moment right now in 2020 when Ontario teachers are standing up again even more cuts to education for a system who hasn’t seen a proper investment in decades, and underlines the urgency of their fight. A cheaper solution than investment, however, was putting unarmed police officers in schools, which made schools unsafe and welcome to many Black students. In 2009, a student was arrested in his school hallway for not identifying himself to an officer. It would take years of protest, but finally in November 2017, the SRO program in the Toronto District School Board was finally abolished. (It remains in the Catholic Board).

“…so much of the public conversation surrounding our work focuses on what we call ourselves and on what right we have to speak and act as we do. People who have time for these questions are dodging much more important ones: What is the purpose of activism? What are we all responsible for in the world, whether we call ourselves activists or not?”

Cole writes about an invitation to be part of the National Black Canadians Summit, which turns out to be very much an establishment operation and committed to the status quo, which Cole is having none of. While in the company of Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, Cole speaks out about the risk of deportation for Abdoul Abdi, a 23 year old refugee from Somalia serving a prison term. Abdi had come under the wardship of the state at age 7, who would have been the only entity with the authority to apply for his citizenship, which never happened. That he should be deported years later to a dangerous place he barely knows (and where known members of racist skinhead organizations had served in the Canadian military two decades before, when a group of soldiers had tortured a teenage boy to death—facts that are not so far outside the frame) seems obviously immoral, wrong and dangerous. Cole had learned about Abdi from his friend, Halifax writer (and former Poet Laureate!) El Jones, who has worked with incarcerated people in Nova Scotia, and unsurprisingly they do not receive a helpful response from the Minister, but with help from other activists (“They say luck happens when opportunity meets preparation.”) continue the fight to keep Abdi in Canada, bringing the issue right to the Prime Minister.

2017 was not special. This is the point of the book. That anti-Black racism is so entrenched in Canadian society that a single year contains so many stories of its insidious threads, but it was also a turning point as Black activists met with successes and had their messages amplified. Or we might hope so—though Cole doesn’t tie the story up on a bow, or end on a note of optimism. The fight goes on. Another month, another year.

February 10, 2020

18 Ways That Having a Sourdough Starter is JUST LIKE Having a Baby

  1. Somebody just handed me this living thing, and its existence does not entirely make sense to me.
  2. Care and feeding of this living thing is a little bit overwhelming and I spend lots of time texting questions to my friend who has had a sourdough starter for six weeks longer than I have and therefore knows EVERYTHING.
  3. I am worried I am not to be trusted with this living thing, and keeping it alive is causing me anxiety.
  4. I spend evenings googling the things that confuse me in particular about the behaviour of my sourdough starter, and perusing sourdough forums to find experiences I can relate to.
  5. I discover sourdough forums, where opinions are strongly held and factions end up fighting amongst themselves.
  6. My sourdough starter is a bit weird, and I have trouble mapping my experience onto the ones that everyone else is writing about.
  7. There are a lot of different ideas and philosophies about care and feeding of a sourdough starter, and how a sourdough starter (and in particular a loaf) eventually turns out seems to be completely unrelated to any of these ideas.
  8. Every loaf you make will be completely different from all the others.
  9. People have their sourdough starter ideas, and get a bit tetchy when you decide to raise yours differently.
  10. They’re worried you’re not feeding yours enough, or that you’re feeding it too much.
  11. I can’t stop sniffing it.
  12. Heated online debates can be found between those who discard their starter every time they feed and those who don’t.
  13. I start to think my sourdough starter is perhaps a little exceptional.
  14. My sourdough starter keeps me up at night—or at least, I am unable to go to bed until I’ve gone downstairs to check on it just one more time.
  15. I have to plan my days around it, not only the feedings, but baking a loaf of bread is a 24 hour process.
  16. I start to realize that it doesn’t actually matter what I do with my sourdough starter, or rather than I can follow my instincts and just do what feels right.
  17. I learn that I can google anything about my sourdough starter, and find an article online to justify what I believe to be true not based on any scientific information whatsoever, but instead my gut feelings about sourdough starters.
  18. With my sourdough starter, I can bake everything I baked without it, but just with more labour and less convenience. And somehow, mysteriously, sometimes it even seems worth the trouble.

February 10, 2020

Gleanings

This is an extra-large serving of good things to read online. This is not my fault. It’s just that people have been creating so much goodness.

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

February 7, 2020

Why We Stand With Teachers

What is most abhorrent to me about how our provincial government is currently trying to spin negotiations with teachers unions in Ontario is that educators are on the front line of this government’s reckless cuts.

And cuts to education are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the challenges our teachers are meeting every day. Maybe the Minister of Education knows this and he just doesn’t care? Or else he has absolutely no idea. (As a person with no background in public education, it’s possible.)

Reductions to minimum wage/ opioid crisis/ cuts to social services/ autism support/ healthcare/ housing/ mental health problems/ domestic violence/ poverty—you name it. Combatting these problems are what teachers do, in addition to teaching (which teachers do well).

One morning last week, I spent fifteen minutes in the school office waiting for a meeting, and I saw it myself, educators rising to the occasion and meeting these challenges with ingenuity and grace.

I wrote a bit about this last year. I challenge people with strong opinions about teachers’ working conditions who have not set foot inside a school since 1976 to maybe update their info.

The one thing that Minister of Education has done well is put his face on EVERYTHING, so we forget that he is only one part of this terrible, incompetent government whose recklessness is going to cost this province for YEARS.

These shambles are not just Stephen Lecce’s. They belong to Doug Ford, and all the MPPs who have paved the way forward for this government. (STILL smarting over what they did to our city council mid election. I will never get over that, and neither should you.)

Our teachers, our public schools: THESE are our social safety net. It’s still full of holes, but it’s the best one we got.

This is why I stand with educators, and Lecce etc. need to shut up and start listening, and maybe learn a thing or two, even if what he learns fails to conform with his ideology (because REALITY).

(I wrote this on Twitter in December, but wanted to post somewhere where it wouldn’t get lost.)

February 6, 2020

Don’t Look Down, by Hilary Davidson

Oh, give me a great novel in February, a book to get lost in, a book that has me spending the whole day anticipating the point when I can get back to it and find out what’s going to happen next, because I’ve got absolutely no idea. New York-based Canadian crime writer Hilary Davidson’s latest novel, Don’t Look Down, was that book for me this week, such an absolute pleasure.

It begins with Jo Greaver, the young CEO of a successful cosmetics company, who’s on her way to a dilapidated apartment building for a meeting with whomever has been blackmailing her with photos and videos from her troubled past. She’s got a bagful of cash and she’s also got a gun, and then the encounter turns violent, she’s got no choice but to use it, escaping down the fire escape to save her life.

When NYPD Detective Sheryn Sterling arrives on the case, it all looks pretty simple. There’s a dead guy and he’s got Jo Greaver’s card in his pocket. When Greaver finally surrenders to authorities, all the pieces seem to line up, and she’s going to be charged with the murder of Andray Baxter, the man whose body was found in the apartment. But of course, nothing is simple and Sheryn Sterling knows that. She’s also still thinking about her teenage son who had the day before been arrested at a protest against the deportation of illegal immigrants. The thirst for her justice that drives her, Sheryn knows, could get her son into all kinds of trouble, and as a Black policewoman and as the mother of a Black boy, the stakes for her are very complicated.

Don’t Look Down is the kind of book you can point to when people cry CENSORSHIP at scrutiny of how stories about characters who are Black or people of colour are being told (and by whom). Because the fact is not that a white author can’t do it, but instead that she has to do it so well, and I think that Davidson really does in this novel, which engages smartly and thoughtfully with race and racism. White is not the default for Davidson’s characters, which a reader would expect from any halfway decent novel set in New York City—Sterling’s partner is Latinx, a key witness is Thai, Jo Greaver’s vice-president is Chinese-American, her lawyer has a Japanese surname. (This is just a handful of examples.) These choices are thoughtful and interesting, and a reflection of the world as it is.

The story is twisty and absorbing, and I had no idea how it was all going to turn out. Deftly plotted, it did not even begin to get a little bit silly and over-the-top until close to the end, which is altogether forgivable. The writing was great, dialogue fun and snappy, and the pacing never missed a beat. Don’t Look Down was delightful, and everything I want in a read.

February 4, 2020

Discovering Emily

“Everybody loves Anne, but I like Emily. She’s dark.” —Russian Doll

It was a year ago now that I was swept along in the enthusiasm for the Netflix series Russian Doll, starring Natasha Lyonne, a strange and enigmatic show in which the novel Emily of New Moon featured as a major plot point. Which was just as weird and curious as everything about the show, and it put Emily on my radar for the first time in years. Emily, a second-tier Anne of Green Gables, I’d always supposed, the case not helped by the cover of the Seal paperback that featured prominently in my childhood, which is basically just Anne with different coloured braids.

This specific copy is stolen from the library of the school where I attended Grade 7 and 8. I am not sure exactly if I was the thief, but somehow this ended up in a box in my mom’s basement and I brought it home not long ago, because of Russian Doll.

In childhood, Emily was wasted on me. I know that I read the whole series because I’m now just one chapter away from rereading Emily of New Moon (have been reading it aloud to my family for the past couple of months) and remember parts of the story from when Emily is a bit older, which is mainly her totally gross relationship with the much-older Dean Priest. I know I read the whole series, because I was an L.M. Montgomery completist, but it mostly just left me with questions. Like what was up with Dean Priest? (Upon reread, I still don’t know the answer to this.) Where exactly was Stovepipe Town? And “the flash.” I didn’t understand “the flash.” Emily of New Moon was Anne of Green Gables, but weirder. Emily is dark—Russian Doll was right. And as a young reader, I didn’t have the understanding to appreciate that, or to appreciate the novel properly at all.

But it’s so good. The takeaway from our family read is this. The number of times I’ve come to the end of a paragraph and stopped reading, and everybody starts yelling at me, “No, no. Come on! Keep going! What happens next?” The story itself a bit overwrought and melodramatic, but not to the detriment of the reader’s enjoyment. And not without a sense of humour either—when Emily eats the poisoned apple! The ghost in the walls at Nancy Priest’s house! A cast of characters so firmly realized that when the narrative notes that Perry Miler would be the leader of Canada one day, my children asked me if this had actually transpired. And I don’t want to knock Anne, but Emily’s friends are so much more interesting that Diana. Foul-mouthed Ilse Burnley (and the mystery of her runaway mother), and Perry (who in one scene hangs naked from the kitchen ceiling), and Teddy Kent with his suffocating mother who drowns his cats because she can’t bear that he loves anything but her.

Emily is a fantastic character, up there with Harriet M. Welch as a person whose boldness and will I’d like to channel. Where Anne Shirley was desperate for love and to be liked, Emily has spent most of her childhood in the care of a doting father who gave her a remarkable inheritance, an indelible sense of herself. She knows her worth and her value, and when others don’t, she sees it more as a reflection on them than on her. Even when she arrives at New Moon, where she is an outsider (her mother years ago had run away from her family there to marry her father), she is able to draw on the traditions of her mother’s family and their heritage to further shape her own identity. She knows who she is, and where she came from, which gives her an impressively strong foundation to build her self upon.

Her steadfastness is so admirable, and curious in a child. There is an uncannyness to her character that makes even the most sensible grown-ups uncomfortable, and this tension makes for fascinating reading. And so does the action—Montgomery channels the same gothic darkness here that made her The Blue Castle so delicious, but the novel is also filled with light and the pleasures of everyday. I love the chatty and mundane letters Emily has written to her late father, which reminded me of my favourite parts of another Montgomery novel I loved, The Road to Yesterday (in fact The Golden Road! The LM Montgomery Society kindly corrected me on Twitter) in which a group of cousins put together a newspaper. And I think Aunt Elizabeth might be my favourite Montgomery character since Marilla Cuthbert.

February 3, 2020

Gleanings

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

January 31, 2020

Finding Lucy, by Eugenie Fernandes

I’m not reading picture books as avidly as I once was, which I guess was sort of an inevitable development. Ten years ago, when I had my first baby and was at a loss as to how to relate to her or the circumstances of my mother life, picture books were like a port in the storm, a place where my child’s and my interests actually converged, and they were how I related and connected to my daughter in those early days when her existence was still so alien and strange, and I was overwhelmed and always exhausted.

We’ve hung onto picture books all this time, however, because my children are four years apart, so we’ve stretched out early childhood for an awfully long time in our household, but now my youngest is six and a half, and she’s really into Ivy and Bean. And yes, of course, she reads us picture books now, and my eldest still enjoys them, but they’re not the meat of our literary diet as once upon a time they were. Which is why my #PictureBookFriday posts are getting few and far between. (Blogging tip: let your blog grow and change as you do. Don’t write posts that feel like chores.)

Writing this post doesn’t feel at all like a chore though, because it’s about Eugenie Fernandes’ Finding Lucy, a picture book I’m kind of obsessed with (and I think it’s also Fernades’ first picture book in quite some time). It mingles an old fashioned storybook sensibility (there are talking animals, and the cat is called “the cat”) with a dazzling and delightful abstraction, and the most delicious vocabulary. In fact, this is a book that relishes language just as much as it does colour and art, with words like “discombobulated,” “ferocious” and “atrocious.” “It’s utterly befuddling and baffling and piffling and dribbling and scribbling!” —so say the critics about Lucy’s attempt at a painting.

And yes, everybody has an opinion, as Lucy tries to paint her picture. She wants to paint the colour of laughter, she says, but then a reporter shows up, and then an elephant and a crocodile, and a chicken and a pig (with a pramfull of piglets) and a big city critic who arrives to assess Lucy’s work and have the final say. It’s a story about the necessity of sticking to one’s vision and not having your art be muddled from every elephant or crocodile who happens to wander by. But it’s also a story that’s so much more more than what it’s actually about, a book that’s rich and expansive, celebrating the exuberance of the creative spirit.

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