Three Books

By , June 28, 2022 5:59 pm

Ai Wei Wei, Ross King and Catherine Hernandez are the authors of the three books I read on my time off from school.

A few days after surgery I walked with Val to the local bookstore. It’s not really that far but it was a nearly exhausting experience. However, I knew I had to have something to read during my recovery.

I started with Ai Wei Wei’s memoir. I can’t say I previously knew too much about him; I’d seen a few documentaries and studied a bit of his art for the grade 12 World History e-learning course. I’m familiar enough with Chinese history to be able to contextualize him. The first half of the book was a quick read in which he detailed his father’s experiences in various camps and forms of detention in the Mao era (and not just the Cultural Revolution). So young Wei Wei lived with his poet father in these isolated, harsh places and learned to make the best of them. His free spirited nature as an artist surely developed out of those experiences.

Similarly, in Scarborough, the characters live difficult lives, some of which they overcome, and some they don’t. The novel is hard to put down – this coming from a reader of primarily non-fiction. Hernandez gets right to the point and doesn’t mince any words in narrating and describing the lives of families who make use of an early learning centre in a public school. All of them face challenges, not just economic ones. The teacher (or social worker) who runs the centre is caring and compassionate, though her boss is not. The boss does not want her to provide food to the families and children. Sick political angle.

Ross King’s latest Renaissance book follows the life and career of Vespasiano, a man who commissioned the hand-scribing of manuscripts – primarily editions of Greek philosophy – in Florence and beyond during the 1400s. He became so good at his craft that he worked with Medici’s and popes. The book was interesting to me not so much for the content of the Humanist books that Vepasiano created, but for the descriptions of the process: paper, parchment or vellum; modern or Gothic script; rubricated (I love that word)! At the same time as this self-made bookseller reached his zenith, the new technology of printing was spreading across Europe. The competition began.

Great spring reading. I highly recommend all three.

Now on to Charlie Angus’ Cobalt!

Thought of the moment

By , March 20, 2022 1:03 pm

Subway Reading

By , March 15, 2022 3:56 pm

Recently I read a book whose cover I wanted to hide when I was on the subway or bus:

It was actually a fast and interesting read but often a horrifying one due to the subject matter – how to be a Roman slave master. Written by a modern day professor, Jerry Toner, it takes on the ‘voice’ of a Roman slave owner as author. Each chapter offers the view of slave owner Marcus Sidonius Falx on a particular aspect of slave ownership such as punishment or manumission. Falx is of course a fictional character based on Toner’s research. After each chapter there’s a brief commentary section where the professor addresses the original Roman sources he has relied on and spends a lot of care making sure the readers don’t think the Romans were anything like us.

Though I am relatively well versed in Roman history and society, I found it quite a deep dive into the patrician class and their snobby views of their own superiority, obviously as pertaining to their perceived social inferiors. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Romans were nasty people. I don’t know if Toner set out to generalize about slave owners or felt that by crafting such a hypocritical and callous character as Falx he would attract more readers.

Falx considers himself a kind and generous owner for his positive relations with his slaves (including fathering many children out of such relations), his generosity to those who have served him well, his fair punishments for those who trespass against him and his property, and his genius theories of what motivates slaves to work harder. He is aware of the problems of slavery in the empire (the book is set before Rome’s long downfall really began) in that he admits that Romans have become too dependent on slavery. However, he makes it more than clear that he’s unwilling to do anything he finds beneath him as a member of a ‘chosen’ class.

One subtext that I picked up while reading is just how litigious the Romans were. Many cases relating to slavery ended up in the law courts. This, to me, says both good and bad things about the Romans. They had laws to guide them in their social relations; however, those laws were never about being good or bad.

By HUGE contrast, my next book is a gentle and calm tract on people and nature. I feel no need to hide it when I’m on the subway. In fact I finished it on the Bathurst streetcar and was looking for someone to discuss it with.

Forgive me if it’s naïve to ask, “where has this book been all my life?” I find it very calming. The author is an Indigenous American woman from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a biology professor, and a lifelong student of the relationship between humans and nature. I like that she has a teacher voice but one that also recognizes there’s always more to learn.

While I love the material, possibly because I’m a vegan, I am absolutely mesmerized by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writing style: descriptive in an earthy way. Not frilly. Not pious. Not sanctimonious. Calm and easy going.

The book’s main argument is that our relationship with nature must be reciprocal in order to help both us and the planet survive. We have to give, not just take.

As a history teacher, I know that we cannot judge the people of the past for acting within the norms of their own societies. But there were always dissenters and voices (though not loud or powerful enough at the time) who make it impossible for us to say that things could not have been different. I often think back to England in the late 1700s when industrialization was getting started. While no one could have foreseen the damage that would be done to our climate, there surely were those who saw the new way of life as being anti-nature. Robin Wall Kimmerer asks us to listen to those voices in our society. People who think there is another way. Really she’s asking us to listen to nature.

It may be surprising that this vegan found the chapter on the trapper quite interesting. Morally I am squeamish about hunting, trapping, even fishing. But if it’s for sustenance and done in as humane a way as possible, I accept it as part of the relationship Indigenous people have with the environment. Sport hunting? Absolutely not. Fishing so buddies can drink some beer (as I often see on Rice Lake), not in my book.

The book is probably not going to make me change my lifestyle further. However, it makes me more thoughtful about nature and how young people could learn to interact with it. Perhaps along with the land acknowledgement that we recite every morning we should take to heart parts of the Honorable Harvest:

“Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.” …

“Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”

No coincidence here … I just watched “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix. I was already pre-disposed to love this species after watching PBS’s Nature: Octopus – Making Contact. I’m not going to go out and seek to meet an octopus, nor do I think the Octopus trusted the man (Craig Foster). They were just curious about each other and that, in my books, is just fine, if no harm was done.

My View on the Olympic Figure Skating

By , March 9, 2022 7:50 pm

Blunt admission: I am a very passionate skating fan, especially of ice dance. I am not only a viewer during the Olympics. When Covid first broke one of the saddest things for me was the cancellation of the World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal. There, said it.

First, I am tired. I stayed up late to watch the team event, the men, the ice dance, and some of the pairs. And I am a person who is almost always in bed by 11:00 pm.

Second, I didn’t watch the women’s event at all because I haven’t followed the women for the last few years for many of the same reasons that have become the media focus during the games. Just stuff I don’t enjoy talking about. Ick. Ick.

Third, I only watched skating. I didn’t watch any other competitions. No, not even hockey or speed skating, two big sports for Canada!

Let’s start with the Team Event. I know some skating purists don’t like the team event, only in its third Olympics. To be frank, I like it because I think it’s only fair that skaters should have more opportunities to win medals like so many of their fellow athletes in multi-event sports such as speed skating, swimming, etc. It’s also a great warm-up (usually) for skaters in their individual competitions.

I thought it was highly enjoyable, though I was very disappointed in Roman Sadovsky, the Canadian man who had to step in for Keegan Messing when he was delayed in flying to Beijing due to a positive Covid test.

By contrast, I was so pleased by Maddy Schizas, the only Canadian woman in the competition. If it weren’t for Maddy Canada would not have even made the team final (top 5 teams) which would have been a great shock after Canada won the team gold at the last Olympics. So great job to her – very mature, responsive and poised.

Two of my favourite skaters, Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, in the dance event, just didn’t have the best time. I’ve been watching their programs all year and all the changes they’ve made over the months. They looked more fluid, less rushed. But judges were really tough on them and they didn’t have their best skates. On the other hand I was beyond excited that Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates won the free dance. Amazing. I have loved their alien free dance from the start of the season when it was taking so much criticism for being un-Olympic.

Piper Gilles, Paul Poirier help Canada with free dance - KTVZ
Piper and Paul’s free dance in the team event

On to the men. I am a very big Nathan Chen fan. Absolute unparalleled athleticism and focus. Not as much a Yuzuru Hanyu fan, though I respect his huge ambition and his technical greatness. I personally find that many of his programs look the same and thus I don’t admire his artistry as much as perhaps I should. But what I loved most about the men was Yuma Kagiyama. There’s this expression that skating commentators have often used over the years to describe very fluid skaters: “a skater’s skater.” It could not apply to him any more! He is so musical, so smooth. So clever and creative, and expressive in both happy and sad emotions. On a Canadian note, Keegan did a great job considering how long it took him to get to Beijing. He brings an energy all his own to the event and it’s that uniqueness that I appreciate. Just a note on his spins: he is one of the best spinners in the world and doesn’t seem to get appropriate marks for it. Is it because he’s not a classical-type skater? Speaking of, of course I was extremely happy that Jason Brown finished sixth overall. No quad. No need. Beautiful musical skating. Especially in the short program, the Sinnerman choreography is unique, challenging, fresh and a perfect fit for Jason. I just cannot say how much I love him. He’s probably one of the skaters I would most want to meet in person! He has a perspective and something to contribute to the world, not just to skating. It sometimes shocks me that I haven’t stalked him outside the Cricket Club in Toronto.

Jason Brown

Ah, the dance. Such an incredible last flight in the free program. I was so happy for Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue to skate so powerfully and cleanly in their final amateur skate. I don’t love their program so much but that is irrelevant when they skate it so well. I personally would have had Chock and Bates in third and the Russians Sinitsina and Katsalapov in fourth (or lower). Listening to Scott Moir commentating very frankly on them on CBC was fascinating. Having also watched it on the Olympic feed, I feel the commentators there, especially Belinda Noonan, were kind to all the skaters. They were very positive and human. And I have no problem with that.

About the Canadians in ice dance. I felt heartbroken for Piper and Paul to have made a mistake in both programs. However, I found the rest of their programs were stronger than their marks indicated. I am not saying I thought they should have been on the podium: no, not here. Not the right energy. And as much as I have enjoyed the creativity of the Elton John-themed rhythm dance (and the bright orange costumes), the Long and Winding Road long program just felt heavy at the Olympics. I didn’t think of it until I heard Sandra Bezic refer to it as “over-produced.” I did not feel that way all season long. So sad that it concluded this way for them. I have really come to appreciate the work of Nikolaj Sorensen and Laurence Fournier Beaudry over the past few years. Again, it’s very unfortunate that they had some mistakes because they have been rising up the ranks lately. I am very pleased they switched their free dance to Gladiator. The previous spoken word program just didn’t hit it with me. I thought the third-ranked Canadian team, Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha, skated well and were somewhat undermarked. Especially in the free dance, their choreography is very sophisticated for their ages.

If I’m being honest, my favourite programs all season have been Chock and Bates’ alien meets astronaut theme due to its creative choreography and fantastic lifts, and Piper and Paul’s Long and Winding Road. One worked at the Olympics, one didn’t. That’s sports. Third spot would go to the Spanish team, Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz, for their Zorro program. That they were able to skate it so well after having to compete it at the highest level all season long against their fellow Spanish team for that one ice dance spot for Spain, AMAZING. How they did it, I do not know. Again, that is the amazingness of sports!

Chock and Bates

I didn’t watch the women and have little to say except that there is no surprise to the initiated that something is wrong with Eteri Tutberidze, her so-called methods, her humanity, her choreography (or lack thereof). Everything. Just one high point: Kaori Sakamoto is another of those pure, fluid skaters. A person is allowed to and should be expected to show joy in skating!

The pairs surprised me. Pairs skating has gone in a very weird direction in the last few years with such downer music. Slow, weepy, teary. I’m not in love with that trend at all. However, there were a number of stunning performances. For one, the Japanese team of Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara. Such joy, abandon, love of skating. This has been building all season long and it is such an absolute pleasure to have seen them on this Olympic journey. Not quite with the same freedom, but close, Russians Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov finally had a clean, passionate skate. Wow. What a pressure relief for them after the disappointment of the free program at the 2018 Olympics. I respected and appreciated the cleanliness of the third-place Russians, Anastasia Mishina and Alexandr Galliamov. Very talented and mature. They just need to push harder and put more emotion in until the very last moment. Finally, probably the biggest emotional event of the skating competition, the gold medal for Sui Wenjing and Han Cong. Yes, they made a mistake. But they also took a big risk with the quad split twist. Beautiful program and choreography. Such incredible skating skills, such passion and intensity. And how could one go wrong skating to the lyrics of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”?

Beijing 2022 figure skating: Everything you need to know about Japan's Riku  Miura and Ryuichi Kihara
Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara

I still love skating. I’m very sad that such a bad light has been shone on my sport. But hopefully it will be cleaned up and the road for future skaters will look brighter.

Frederick and Val

By , January 22, 2022 10:43 am

Val did something very sweet for me yesterday. I didn’t know in advance – he just told me he needed the car.

When I arrived home he told me he’d gone to Sheridan. I immediately thought he’d purchased a sapling to plant at the cottage since we’ve recently had another tree taken down (and Val is growing a bunch of trees in the upstairs bathroom).

It turns out he went out to pick up a tiny puzzle of Frederick.

Frederick is the mouse in one of my favourite children’s books. I still have my copy from 1973.

Frederick is a different sort of mouse, a real non-conformist. I like him!

2021 Reading

By , December 19, 2021 2:36 pm

I did not read nearly enough books this year. Blame it on the pandemic, I conveniently and shamefully say.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

I started and got 300 pages into Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, really liking the personal and family bits. But I found myself politically tired as I read the sections on passing bills in Congress. By the time Afghanistan rolled around I could not stomach it anymore. I really admire Obama’s non-cynical nature and his careful examinations of his decisions. However, reading about damned if you do and damned if you don’t discussions on Afghanistan just tested my patience too much and I abandoned the book, hoping to return one day.

Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to  Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge

This one I got through pretty quickly. As usual I picked it up at my local Book City on one of the remains table. Liking social histories, I thought it would offer a good perspective on those who don’t always make it to the historical headlines, domestic servants. Yes, I’m a fan of Downtown Abbey and I used this book as a measuring stick to gage Julian Fellows’ historical accuracy! That aside, the book was fast moving, filled (nay – jammed) with incredible quotes. The only problem was I probably ended up learning more about the wealthy employers than the servants themselves. That is partially owing to the nature of the sources.

21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make  Reconciliation With Indigen..., Book by Bob Joseph (Paperback) |

I have no problem plainly saying that every Canadian should read this book. Though I considered myself relatively educated about the Indian Act prior to reading this short but devastating book, I realize that was just dispersed knowledge. Here Bob Joseph puts it all together, with historical context, quotes and commentary, in a way that is incredibly readable and relevant. There is just no way to understand Canada’s history without a full picture of the intents and damages of the Indian Act.

Romeo and Juliet (No Fear Shakespeare)

I’m not ashamed to admit I read Romeo and Juliet for the first time in modern English “translation.” Though I am of course familiar with the story through movies and the ballet (to which I took my mom some years ago), I had not actually read the play (it was Twelfth Night for grade 9s at St. Andrew’s Junior High School back in the 1980s). I started out reading the original play but I found it very difficult to navigate those little footnoted comments on the bottom of the page. My aging brain just could not handle going back and forth – it just broke the momentum of the narrative. So I picked up a few copies of the No Fear version, intending to read it with one of my credit recovery students. That didn’t happen. Nevertheless, I found it a fast-moving, relatable story. It provoked some uncomfortable thoughts about young love and its not so reliable passions.

I have now nearly finished this new book from Margaret MacMillan. Even when I am tired on my morning subway and bus rides, if I am sitting, I pull it out. It’s quite an addictive, easy read. Most of the examples are western, many pulled from the World War One era. Obviously I feel most comfortable with this book when it’s on familiar terrain (both the author’s and mine). She challenges me as a history teacher who likes to ignore war as too messy a subject, reminding me that so much comes of war. True. True. As much as I have enjoyed it, I would like to see the author stop using “the great” as a descriptor for all kinds of historical figures. It drives me mad!!!

The few other books I read this year have already been reviewed on this blog: David Chariandy’s I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, Melissa Gould’s Widowish, and Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe.

I resolve to read more this year, starting with Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers which I just received as a gift from the kind and generous Barry Pietersen.

Special magazine mentions:

When I’m on the streetcar heading down to riding at the Horse Palace, I often bring a copy of The Walrus or Scientific American. Here are some standout articles from this year.

“Journey into the Americas” by Jennifer Raff, Scientific American, May 2021 – about when and where the early people of North America came from (I am fascinated by this topic as a world history teacher)

“Deadly Kingdom” by Maryn McKenna, Scientific American, June 2021 – about the rise of fungal diseases (surprises lurking)

“Why Animals Play” by Caitlin O’Connell, Scientific American, August 2021 – who wouldn’t want to read an article accompanied by cute animal photos

“Lifting the Venus Curse” by Robin George Andrews, Scientific American, September 2021 – the case for new missions to study one of Earth’s closest neighbours

“Women at Risk” by Melinda Wenner Moyer, Scientific American, September 2021 – part of a special report on autoimmune diseases, this article really shows the double burden of the female body – incredibly interesting potential reasons why suffer disproportionately from autoimmune diseases such as lupus.

“Northern Inroads” by Gloria Dickie, The Walrus, Jan./Feb. 2021 – surprising ways China is making its way into Canada’s north

“How Immigration Really Works” by Kelly Toughill, The Walrus, May 2021 – we always think of federal jurisdiction when it comes to immigration but these days so much more is locally driven

“Justice on Trial” by Eva Holland, The Walrus, June 2021 – Canada’s legal system through the eyes of Indigenous Canadians

“Students for Sale” by Nicholas Hune-Brown, The Walrus, Sept./Oct. 20`21 – an indictment of the international student racket run by Canadian colleges and universities.

“The Campus Mental Heath Crisis” by Simon Lewsen, The Walrus, November 2021 – important reading for a high school teacher – the need to know what happens to mental health after high school is pressing

“The RCMP Revisited” by Jane Gerster, The Walrus, November 2021 – fascinating history of the national police force and its origins in the policing of reserves

Indigenous Education Week (Nov 1-5)

By , October 30, 2021 4:13 pm

Ever since my whole school live Zoom presentation on September 30, the first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I have said that I wanted to continue the conversation.

I have not lived up to that as well as I wanted. I’m working on it.

One thing I’d like to share is the “Save the Evidence” campaign from the Woodland Cultural Centre, home to the former Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School.

We know as historians how important primary source evidence is. That’s what the school building represents. People need to see it to appreciate its significance in the history of residential schools that Canadians are learning more about.

When I first drove up that driveway and saw that imposing colonial-style building, I felt uneasy. After learning more about the place known sadly known to students as the “mush hole”, I felt pretty sick. There is nothing child-friendly about it.

When our group visited Woodland Cultural Centre, we had the privilege of hearing survivor Geronimo Henry speak about his 11-year ordeal at the Mohawk Institute. He had a number of items with him – primary sources – including this letter that his mother sent the school to enroll him in 1942. Please note that Geronimo gave permission for me to take this photo.

We must always remember that history is about real people. Geronimo Henry, now in his 80s, speaks passionately about his experiences to educate the public about the impacts of residential schools.

Watch this short clip from Sept. 30 at the Mohawk Institute.

We must all keep learning and speaking out.

Van Gogh “Experience”

By , August 31, 2021 4:48 pm

My sister-in-law Felicity and I went to the Van Gogh immersive at the Toronto Star printer building. Fantastic!

I absolutely love Van Gogh’s paintings. Seeing them deconstructed and highlighted at the same time using modern technology was fascinating and wonderful. We thought it was going to be a walk-through; instead, the audience stays still and the images project on the walls, moving and dancing to music almost.

While I thought the music was a bit overwrought, it was appropriate, generally following the flow of Van Gogh’s short life from Holland to France.

There are cafe scenes…

Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin

And agrarian scenes… with hillsides winding while cypress trees climb up the screen and clouds wander by..

And images from his famous paintings of irises and “Starry Night…”

We stayed for two loops of the show and were quite mesmerized by its animation of something old in a thoroughly modern way. To truly bring it to life.

The only bad thing was the usual exit from spectacular art to pedestrian commercialism as you move straight into the gift shop. That’s the same thing at museums these days too, sadly.

Sunflower Photo Shoot

By , August 31, 2021 7:05 am

My aunt and uncle brought us beautiful sunflowers. Here’s the photo op:

Tomato Days of Summer

By , August 24, 2021 4:13 am

I don’t have a dog, so it can’t be the dog days of summer for me. But I have tomatoes aplenty thanks to Val’s planters. And despite the squirrels’ efforts to steal them.

Also, these oyster and shiitake mushrooms from Waymac Farms (via Peterborough Farmers’ Market) need to get an agent! They are so beautiful and delicious. And obviously fun to photograph!

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