“The scale of the changes that we are experiencing in the climate system is unprecedented.”

I don’t usually re-post other blogs, but this one addresses an issue that bothers me and I suspect others, too.  Climate change is upon us. If you are like me, you might feel helpless to do anything about it.  The change is rapid, and the scope and scale is huge.  What can one individual do to combat such an overwhelming problem?

As it turns out, one person can do plenty.  In this post from the Winnipeg Public Library, the author lists books like this one that just might transform the helplessness many feel into positive acts that address the problem.

“The scale of the changes that we are experiencing in the climate system is unprecedented.” Winnipeg Public Library

Review: ‘Spotlight’ in the Era of Oprah and Fake News

Recently, I watched the movie Spotlight on Netflix.  I am a bit late coming to the film. It was released in 2015 and garnered a handful of well-deserved awards including Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. In some ways, it was better that I waited.

Spotlight is based on a series of articles published by the ‘Spotlight’ team at the Boston Globe who investigated sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church prior to 2001. The investigation blew the lid off a massive cover-up by church officials and earned The Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. 

So much has happened in the past year that the film seemed even more poignant now. We’re in an era of fake news allegations, collusion probes, sexual harassment investigations, and almost daily rants from that guy in the White House who seems to tweet while the rest of us sleep. Then there’s Oprah’s rousing speech when she received the Cecil B. de Mille Award at the Golden Globes.  Her ‘truth shall set you free’ message rang in my ears as I watched the film.

In Spotlight, actors Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, and Billy Crudup play key roles. The movie takes viewers behind the scenes and shows the dogged work of reporters on the Spotlight team who dug through mounds of documents and interviewed dozens of victims to get at the truth.

The investigative team filed court documents to release records that had been kept secret.  They cross-referenced sources and checked the validity, accuracy and reliability of purported statements. Once they’d gained solid evidence of sexual abuse and the church’s campaign to keep it secret, they released the information through a series of columns in The Globe.

A survey conducted in August 2017 by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news on social media – with two-in-ten doing so often. Age makes a difference, Of those under 50 years old, 78% are more likely than their elders to get news from these sites.  These are sources where information is often posted that has not been checked or verified, where facts are sometimes in dispute, and where opinions are often passed off as breaking news.  

Watching Spotlight highlighted the stringent measures investigative journalists and trust-worthy non-fiction writers take to ensure that what they write is dead-on accurate. I think Oprah nailed it in her speech:  

We know the press is under siege these days. We also know it’s the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice. To—to tyrants and victims, and secrets and lies. I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.

Spotlight is one film I’d suggest everyone should see, especially, perhaps, the guy in the White House who can’t seem to discern fact from fake. 

 

Annie Proulx Said It Best

The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on.

Annie Proulx (Wikipedia Commons)

Anne Proulx, author of such works as The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, recently received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.  In her acceptance speech, Proulx addressed the gloomy state of the world and the promise of a brighter future that literature and books bring to the table. One reviewer called it “one of the best speeches in recent memory.”  I agree, and here it is:

Although this award is for lifetime achievement, I didn’t start writing until I was 58, so if you’ve been thinking about it and putting it off, well…

I thank the National Book Award Foundation, the committees, and the judges for this medal. I was surprised when I learned of it and I’m grateful and honored to receive it and to be here tonight, and I thank my editor Nan Graham, for it is her medal too.

We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, seesawing between gut-response “likes” or vicious confrontations. For some this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation that is bringing us into an exciting new world. For others it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending.

To me the most distressing circumstance of the new order is the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil. The ferocious business of stripping the earth of its flora and fauna, of drowning the land in pesticides again may have brought us to a place where no technology can save us. I personally have found an amelioration in becoming involved in citizen science projects. This is something everyone can do. Every state has marvelous projects of all kinds, from working with fish, with plants, with landscapes, with shore erosions, with water situations.

Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. We still believe that we can save ourselves and our damaged earth—an indescribably difficult task as we discover that the web of life is far more mysteriously complex than we thought and subtly entangled with factors that we cannot even recognize. But we keep on trying, because there’s nothing else to do.

The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet Wisława Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it “consolation.”

Darwin.
They say he read novels to relax,
but only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If he happened on something like that,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’s had enough with dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggle to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction,
with its micro-scales.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurried to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly in the last.

Traveling on the Heels of Terrorism

Jo & I at Buckingham Palace, the day of the Parsons Green attack. We didn’t know then the severity of the problem.

My wife, Jo, and I were in London when the latest terrorist attack occurred.  We heard the news on BBC television around 8:45 am, just a few minutes before we were planning to head out of our hotel to catch the subway to Buckingham Palace. The announcer couched the news in gentle terms: “There’s been a security breach at the Parsons Green Station.”

It sounded mild, just a precautionary note, not much more.  Besides we were catching a different line at the High Street Kensington Station – not the one running a few stops away at Parsons Green.  What’s to worry about?  So we ventured out anyways.

Throughout the day, we heard little more about the incident other than a few brief announcements at various subways stops directing commuters to find alternate routes and avoid Parsons Green. Only later that evening when we were watching TV, did we hear the full report.  This was a terrorist act.  A bomb with a timing device had gone off a bit too early to do its intended damage.  Nevertheless, it injured 30 people, one a 6-year-old school boy.

Security was tight at 10 Downing Street

Even though this was the 4th terrorist attack in the London region this year, It seemed to us that most Londoners took the news in stride.  They went about their business like usual.  We heard no discussion on the street, but at every venue, security was obvious.

Although we have our share of violent activity in Canada, fortunately we’ve had nothing of this scale or frequency.  Mass attacks are rare.  As tourists, we tried to adopt a life-goes-on attitude, but we became fundamentally different travelers in the days that followed.

We no longer took our safety for granted.  We became more aware of our surroundings, of the people brushing up against us, of the sirens blaring down the street.  We plotted escape routes when we visited places.  We noted exit signs, the doors leading elsewhere, the flow of human traffic.  I noticed for the first time, a security guard in the hotel lobby.  Perhaps he’d been there all along, I couldn’t say for certain, but I breathed easier knowing he was there now.

We became more suspicious, too –  of people dressed in different garb, of those with wild-eyes or unkempt looks, of those speaking different tongues or hauling strange packages.  On the subway, I found myself moving away from these people, or at the very least keeping a careful watch on their every move.

Tower Bridge, site of an earlier terrorist attack this year..

When we flew out of London a few days later, security at the airport was tight.  Perhaps it had been this way before, but this time I was acutely aware of the precautions being taken. When I was asked to stand by as an inspector rummaged through my carry-on and plucked out a bottle of some liquid that I’d forgotten to declare, I felt – not annoyance as I might have before – but gratitude instead.  And when we stood in line for customs in Rome later that day, and I found myself beside a suitcase that someone had left unattended on the floor, I felt a surge of anxiety that refused to go away.

Terrorism maims and kills those directly affected, but in my case its tendrils reach much farther.  Overnight,I become less trusting, more suspicious, more fearful, and more intolerant of differences.  I accepted losses to my personal freedom without question. I believe there are many others who, like me, are building walls of protection around themselves, and casting suspicion, doubt and blame upon others in the name of safety.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate damage enacted by terrorists.  Perhaps that is their ultimate goal, too.

Exercise (and Write) With TED

A few months ago, my friend and fellow writer Suzanne Costigan, posted a blog on her Living Lunacy website that changed the way I view exercise. Rather than simply walking on her treadmill – a mind-numbing experience at best – Suzanne discovered a way to challenge her brain while still making the minutes fly. She tapped into TED Talks as she exercised.

profivideos / Pixabay

I’ve been following Suzanne’s lead ever since. With every workout at the gym, I tune into one or more topics of interest. There are over a thousand TED Talks online that are available for free listening or viewing on computers, tablets or cell phones, so the choices are many. The TED app keeps track of my favourites, recommends others, and logs my viewing history – a handy reference tool.

TED stands for Technology-Entertainment-Design. Ideas are TED’s currency so it’s no surprise that its slogan is “ideas worth spreading”. Each TED Talk is carefully crafted and presented by a skilled authority. Most start with a captivating story. Most are 18 minutes or less long, perfect for brisk workouts. All aim to weave together insightful facts that inspire, challenge and inform.

So far I’ve listened to a few dozen TED Talks on topics that range from cartooning and robots to library design and the plight of migrant workers. I’ve explored many subjects that are new to me. For those that aren’t entirely new, I often discover fresh angles that I hadn’t considered before – grist for the writing mill or at the very least, a way to keep current.

Not everyone is a fan of TED. Some critics have labelled it elitist and claim that the content is shallow and one-dimensional. I think they might be missing the point. A TED talk is just one person’s take on a subject, served in a bite-sized package. Like most things controversial or new, it’s up to the listener to maintain a critical outlook.

If you decide to hop on to TED bandwagon, no doubt you’d find your own favourites. But to get you started, here are 3 that I’d highly recommend:

Dannielle Feinberg – The magic ingredient that brings Pixar movies to life

Go behind the scenes of Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Brave, WALL-E and more, and discover how Pixar interweaves art and science to create fantastic worlds where the things you imagine can become real.

Anne Lamott – 12 truths I learned from life and writing 

A few days before she turned 61, writer Anne Lamott decided to write down everything she knew for sure. She dives into the nuances of being a human who lives in a confusing, beautiful, emotional world, offering her characteristic life-affirming wisdom and humor on family, writing, the meaning of God, death and more.

Marc Railbert – Meet Spot, the robot dog that can run, hop and open doors

That science fiction future where robots can do what people and animals do may be closer than you think. Marc Raibert, founder of Boston Dynamics, demonstrates advanced robots that can gallop like a cheetah, negotiate 10 inches of snow, walk upright on two legs and even open doors and deliver packages.

 

How to Experience the Prairie and Desert Without Going There

Geographically, I am a divided person. Although I’ve lived my whole life in Manitoba, I winter a month or more in Arizona. I can truthfully say that I love both places. With very little prompting, I will whip out photographs of my favourite spots in each location to prove my point.

But here’s the problem. Photographs are one dimensional. They portray visual elements of each place, but they leave out the rest. They don’t capture the smells, tastes, textures and sensory details that round out the experience. You don’t hear the crackle of lightning before the desert storm. You can’t feel the bitter cold of a prairie wind in January or smell the Mexican poppies that blossom in March.

To gain a full appreciation of these places, you should live there. Or…

Or you could read these two picture books. In the hands of master storytellers David Bouchard and Byrd Baylor, the prairie and desert come alive.

First, the prairie
If you’re not from the prairie,
You don’t know the wind,
You can’t know the wind.
Our cold winds of winter cut right to the core,
Hot summer wind devils can blow down the door.
As children, we know that when we play any game
The wind will be there, yet we play just the same.
If you’re not from the prairie
You don’t know the wind.

Using repetitive structure, David Bouchard take readers on a sensory journey across the prairies. We travel through deep winter drifts and into windswept fields of wheat. We experience the scorching sun of summer and the bitter cold of winter. We live through spring thaws, and we marvel at the vast blue skies and colorful sunsets that characterize the prairie. Full page acrylic illustrations by Henry Ripplinger enhance our sensory journey.

And now, the desert

Once I saw a triple rainbow that ended in a canyon where I’d been the day before. I was halfway up a hill standing in a drizzle of rain. It was almost dark but I wouldn’t go in ( because of the rainbows of course), and at the top of the hill a jackrabbit was standing up on his hind legs, perfectly still, looking straight at the rainbow. I may be the only person in the world who’s seen a rabbit standing in the mist quietly watching three rainbows. That’s worth a celebration any time.

When asked if she is lonely living in the desert, the Native American narrator in Byrd Baylor’s book says: How could I be lonely when I am the one in charge of celebrations?” To her, celebrations come in the form of small, noteworthy moments like The Time of the Falling Stars when she saw a streak of light shot through the darkness or Rainbow Celebration Day when she and a jackrabbit stood together watching a triple rainbow over a canyon. Other celebrations include Coyote Day, Green Cloud Day, Dust Devil Day.

Through Byrd Baylor’s evocative text and David Parnell’s striking illustrations, we experience the beauty of the desert, its subtle seasonal changes, and the close relationship between humans and nature in this special place.

 

Freedom to Read Week – What Does Free Expression Really Mean?

Is propaganda alive? Are we free to read, speak and think what we want? Should there be checks and balances, safeguards against alternative facts and twisted ideas?

Here is an example of quashed freedoms from the back pages of history. In May 1933, in most university towns across Germany, nationalist students marched in torchlight parades and threw pillaged books – many by Jewish writers – into bonfires. In Berlin, some 40,000 people participated.  They were led by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, who addressed the crowd with a carefully crafted speech: “No to decadence and moral corruption. Yes to decency and morality in family and state….And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil.”

In that act and others by the Hitler’s Nazi, two arms of propaganda worked together.  One, the manipulation of facts and images. The other, the stifling of free speech. The first advanced Hitler’s twisted ideas; the second ensured that those ideas went unchallenged.

Most democratic countries have laws that protect freedom of expression. Most, too, have laws that prohibit the purposeful skewing of facts, particularly when these denigrate groups and encourage hatred. Admittedly, it can be a slippery slope keeping a balance between the two.

In Canada, February 26 – March 4 is Freedom to Read Week. It’s a time to reflect on the power of words and the freedom of expression that we cherish. The Freedom to Read website lists activities being held around the country in libraries, schools, and public spaces. Also on the website is a list of ‘challenged’ books – books that have been questioned for their content and ideas. Each challenge sought to limit public access. Some challenges were upheld, others rejected. In any case, the list reminds us of the delicate dance between censorship and free expression.

Many children’s books are on the list and I recognized a number of titles. I was often surprised by the objections raised by adult readers and sometimes entire interest groups. Material I might have unquestioningly supported was offensive to others.

Here is a small sample of children’s books that have been challenged in the past decade or two. To fully appreciate the depth and swath of the list as well as the decisions reached by the review committee, I would invite you to visit the website yourself.

Who is Francis Rain? by Margaret Buffie
Novel about a 15 year old girl’s summer on an isolated island with many secrets. Challenged by a school for the use of the words “hell” and “bastard”. 1990

A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird
Novel about a 12-year-old Palestinian boy living in an Israeli-occupied area. Challenged by a Canadian bookseller as “a racist, inflammatory, and a totally one-sided piece of propaganda.” 2003


The Waiting Dog by Carolyn Beck and Andrea Beck
Children’s book about a dog anxiously waiting for the mail to be delivered to his home. Challenged by an Ontario parent who objected to depictions of violence and said the work was not age inappropriate. 2006


No Place for Me by Barthe DeClements
Young adult novel about a young girl dealing with her parents’ divorce. Challenged by a parent who said the book promoted the Wicca religion. 1995


The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Popular children’s book series. Objection from a Newfoundland parent for its depiction of wizardry and magic. 2000

Asha’s Mums by Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse
A children’s story book that depicts same-sex parents. Challenged by school trustees for its questionable family values. 1997

Maxine’s Tree by Diane Leger
Children’s book which tells the story of a girl who tries to protect a tree in B.C.’s rainforest. Challenged by an official of the woodworker’s trade union in B.C. for its anti-logging viewpoint. 1992

Visiting Amazon’s One & Only Bookstore

20160828_130719_001-1While in Seattle recently, I visited Amazon’s flagship, first-ever, and currently only brick-and-mortar bookstore. I was curious why Amazon – the king of online book sales – had changed its marketing strategy. Why invest in a traditional bookstore now after so many years of clobbering the competition by offering a broad selection at discount prices? What made this bookstore different from any other? And why build it in Seattle?

20160828_121536At first glance, Amazon’s sparkling new bookstore looks much like any other. The perimeter of the store is rimmed with tall windows, flooding the interior with natural light. Tall bookcases line the floor, mostly fiction on one side of the store, non-fiction on the other. There’s a children’s section at the rear with cozy seats for young shoppers.

But browse further and you’ll notice a few differences.

20160828_124651 Book covers face outward. You won’t find any books filed with just spines showing. According toa sales manager I questioned, it was to “encourage the discovery process”.

20160828_130251New products are front and center, and you are encouraged to give them a try.

20160828_121619For the most part, only books that receive a 4 to 5 star rating on Amazon.com are stocked in the store. Cards positioned below each title provide a sample review and the book’s star rating on Amazon.com.

20160828_122019Actual prices are not noted on the covers or on the cards below them, but scanners are available throughout the store and you are encouraged to use them.

20160828_122003Prices are the same as the discounted prices on Amazon.com. This book by Erik Larson, one of my favourite authors, was listed at $17.00 . The discounted price was $11.70. Shoppers at the store gain by avoiding shipping costs and any mailing delays.

Displays throughout the store reinforce the Amazon.com connection. Online reviewers determine not only what books are stocked, but also to some degree where their favourite books are shelved and located.

If the crowds sifting through the store on the day I visited are any indication, Amazon’s just might be on to something with its new store. Certainly some – like me – were just curious visitors, but since I walked out with 3 newly purchased books when I had no intention of buying even one, perhaps that’s a testimony to Amazon’s clever marketing. As a reader, I felt strangely empowered. Here I belonged to a worldwide community of readers where our reviews, our feedback, our choices determined what was placed on the shelves. And talk about enticing prices. The discounts are hard to beat.

According to the sales clerk I questioned, this is exactly what why Amazon ventured into the brick-and-mortar field. “Amazon has been in operation for 20 years. We felt it was time to branch out, to offer more to our valued customers.”

Two more Amazon stores are set to open in the next few months – one in Portland, the other in San Diego. But why Seattle for the first? Perhaps a better question is ‘Why not Seattle?” Seattle is Amazon’s home base and at 20,000 employees in 30 buildings spread throughout the city, its largest private employer.  Seattle is where the company started, where it’s grown into a worldwide mega-empire, and where proof of it gigantic holdings can be seen in a new office complex currently under construction that will soon dominate the city’s downtown.

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