“Lester’s Book” Release Party

 

I haven’t written through the Balls of Rice channel very much in the past two years as I’ve been working on other writing projects. These projects have included some of those listed under the Books and Audiobooks tabs of BallsofRice.com, smaller articles and book reviews, and more. If you’re able or interested, please come out to the “Lester’s Book” Release Party on June 4, or order a book from ballsofrice.bandcamp.com to see what I’ve been up to. I feel confident that this is some of my best work to date.

Thanks for checking in.

[Art by Alex Murray (atmmurray[at]gmail.com)]

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Fighting For Space

The following book review of Travis Lupick‘s book Fighting For Space first appeared in Briarpatch Magazine‘s Prairie Edition, and online.

In 2002, a group of residents and advocates met at the intersection of Main and Hastings in Vancouver holding a 100-foot-long hypodermic needle made out of a giant cardboard tube, stopping traffic. They were protesting the forced closing of a needle exchange on the corner of Main and Hastings in the Downtown Eastside. Earlier, in 2001, front-line workers had distributed clean needles in a trailer outfitted with washrooms, and ensured those using in bathroom stalls didn’t overdose. Affectionately known as “the Thunder Box,” the trailer became one of North America’s first unsanctioned supervised injection sites.

These stories are among countless actions detailed in Travis Lupick’s Fighting for Space, which tells of the struggle that led to the implementation of Canada’s first official safe-injection site in Vancouver in 2003. The history of the harm reduction movement is one of direct action and protest – an “act first, ask second” attitude that was the only reasonable response to an outbreak of preventable disease and a crisis of premature deaths. Lupick focuses on the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), the groundbreaking housing non-profit that offered low-barrier housing to the city’s most vulnerable, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the advocacy group that pushed for accessible health care and decriminalization of drug use. The two worked in tandem, with VANDU often willingly taking the heat for direct actions to protect the more diplomatic and funding-restricted Portland Hotel Society.

The history of the harm reduction movement is one of direct action and protest – an “act first, ask second” attitude.

The 1990s saw a dramatic spike in overdose deaths and high rates of HIV diagnoses in Vancouver – not unlike the current fentanyl crisis playing out across Canada. But this time the human cost is much higher, with 2017 being the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths in B.C. The strategies used by advocates on the West Coast, honed over decades of persistent work, can provide guidance for similar struggles being newly waged in neighbouring Prairie provinces like Saskatchewan, where fentanyl has killed over 40 people since 2015.

While revealing the staggering numbers of diagnoses and deaths is key to understanding the scope of the problem, it is the stories of the people who’ve lived through the harm reduction movement that makes this history real. By telling the accounts of people struggling for dignity against politicians and a public determined to dehumanize them, Lupick reinforces two basic claims of the harm reduction movement: people who use drugs are human, and all people deserve safety and health.

In one of their first organized meetings, members of the newly formed VANDU agreed that they wanted somewhere safe and healthy to spend time, a space that was free of police harassment. The Portland Hotel Society’s first residence was known as the “Hotel of Last Resort.” Simplifying their message to one of “health and safety” – one that politicians and the public couldn’t reasonably reject – has grounded all of their actions and successes in the harm reduction movement. Lupick concludes the book with an epilogue about a family — Mary, Molly, and Mikel — in a quietly triumphant story of three generations living in the Portland Hotel Society, all experiencing stability in their health and housing.

Lupick reinforces two basic claims of the harm reduction movement: people who use drugs are human, and all people deserve safety and health.

Lupick does not deify Vancouver’s advocates or their process – rather, he shows them to be people offering the simple necessities of safety and support, while working toward inclusive public health policy. He demonstrates a proven way to effectively build low-barrier health care and housing systems: through persistent action coupled with advocacy, and building partnerships with sympathetic policy-makers. Without this infrastructure, the number of overdose deaths in B.C. last year would have been much higher.

The current situation on the Prairies is nearly as dire as the one Vancouver faced in the 1990s. Saskatchewan’s HIVAIDS rates are the highest in the country, and with 79 per cent of the people newly diagnosed as HIV-positive self-identifying as Indigenous, programming must prioritize consultation with Indigenous communities. Meanwhile, harm reduction programs have been heavily stigmatized by a predominantly conservative public and openly scrutinized by political leaders. In 2009, former premier Brad Wall said his government would limit the number of clean needles handed out, despite a Saskatchewan Ministry of Health report proving the success of needle exchange programs. In 2017, The Sask. Party threatened community based organizations with a 10 per cent funding cut that would hit operations deemed not to be “core services,” like needle exchanges. Though the party eventually opted against the funding cut, when harm reduction programs are routinely among the first to be threatened, the work being done by those of the front lines is delegitimized and destabilized.

When harm reduction programs are routinely among the first to be threatened, the work being done by those of the front lines is delegitimized and destabilized.

For years, doctors, front-line workers, and advocates in Saskatchewan have been pushing for the province to declare a state of emergency regarding rising HIV rates. But if we continue to wait for a provincial government to take necessary action – especially as two newly elected party leaders wade in slowly, in a province where the health of First Nations people is systematically neglected — it may never happen. Prairie activists and front-line workers struggling through those bureaucracies must instead act upon their values and conscience to build systems of equitable health care and human services, regardless of whether they have been granted permission by the state.

Nicholas Olson is the author of A Love Hat Relationship, a photobook of collectable prairie hats; and a series of illustrated zines with accompanying audiobook narrations. More can be found at ballsofrice.com. He lives in Treaty 4 Territory.

 

I wasn’t shot dead in the CN Railyard.

Originally posted December 2015. Updated Feb 9, 2018.

We sat bored as hell in the dormitory of our Christian high school. Tired of lighting carpet on fire, bored of fist fighting with hockey helmets and gloves in a boy-battle named Cage Rage, weary of quietly playing Nintendo with girls we’d never marry. The week before, a boy had chased a rabbit onto the highway, it got flattened and brought back as a trophy kill. He wanted more blood. We gathered in his dorm room–the home of one of those kids who grew up killing things for fun, the kind of kid who hides a compound bow under his bed–and slipped on camouflage jackets and gloves, orange toques and Santa hats, grabbed the CO2 powered pellet gun built like a rifle, and headed to the train tracks to shoot pigeons. Ten years ago this past December.

We walked through campus with an uncovered rifle, walked across an empty field, past several blocks of homes, down an alley, four of the dumbest and most innocent church kids there ever were, excited to rid God’s green earth of some of its other dumbest animals. We crossed a hill, maybe hopped a fence, and entered the railyard. We searched for any living thing; rabbits were hiding, squirrels were sleeping, but there were the pigeons, cooing from on high. I raised the gun to my shoulder, aimed to the top of the billboard where they glowed iridescent in the cold grey sky. First shot was low, hit the billboard, an ad for cell phones. Second shot was high, the pellet likely raining down on a passing-by car. Third shot was never taken, we heard a car crawl over the hill near the tracks. Flashing lights on top. Myself and the kid wearing the Santa hat took to run, but were stopped by our more experienced gunmen. Another cop car pulled up from around the gravel access road. From behind us came two cops on foot being pulled by pursuing German Shepherds.

I wasn’t shot dead in the CN Railyard. Ten years later, my mother does not mourn my death.

Tamir Rice, 12-year-old kid in Cleveland, Ohio, “whose size made him look much older,” approximately the size of a 17-year-old grade 12 student from a Christian school, was shot dead in his park. A year later, his mother mourns his death and the fact that greater society, the courts included, does not see it as a pervasive problem. Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old kid in smalltown Saskatchewan is shot in the head and the man who admitted he shot him in the head is acquitted.

* * *

At one of the two Christmas events I couldn’t avoid, politics came up. I was bureaucratically sorting my RACK-O cards from least to greatest, listening to peoples’ justified disbelief at a gun culture that allows people to be regularly shot down in the streets. Not a mention, save for the flight delay caused by Black Lives Matter protests at an airport, of racial inequalities, radicalization caused by the perpetual war state, the cutting of social programs. Polite Canadians can righteously shake their heads at their southern neighbours about their affinity for deadly weapons, but don’t bother condemning their southern neighbours for racial oppression because they can’t—-both places are equally as guilty and purposefully ignorant.

Without first hand experience, it may be impossible for those with privilege to fully understand systemic oppression. Systemic, meaning, deeper, more complex, often unnoticeable, traditional ways in which our society and our personal actions, whether we know it or not, play into oppressing a group of people. Systemic, meaning, racism based in systems such as policing, the courts, social services, healthcare that create a culture in which the general populace, who may have nothing to do with these systems themselves, still perpetuate racism through their own action or inaction. To even gain a glimpse of this oppression is done only by building relationship with the person who suffers from its crushing weight, learning about them, until you can clearly say that common understanding and camaraderie is shared.

The shooting of a Black pre-teen in the midwest, the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police, the Starlight Tours given to Neil Stonechild twenty years ago in Saskatoon, the murder of Colten Boushie, are the culmination, the physical representation, of the systemic racism suffered by people of colour in North America. They are not “perfect storm[s] of human error” or “freak accident[s]” or individual incidents. They are tied so closely together and so closely to the fabric of our colonial society. It is not simply the lack of gun control, but the lack of gun control that rests upon a bed of racism and colonialism. Not just a few bad police officers, bad apples, dealing with a few ‘problematic’ people, but rather a few bad police officers trained and conditioned by the organization meant to uphold the power of the privileged at the expense of the rights of Aboriginal peoples. Systemic.

Until the privileged come to understand that these attacks that seem (to the unoppressed) isolated and separate, are actually the continuation of a plan of assimilation and extermination that has existed since the inception of the settler state, innocent people will continue to be shot by police officers. And for people to truly come to understand how broad and sweeping the system is, how it permeates the lives of both privileged and oppressed, they will need to learn to grow in community with someone who might not even be aware of all the ways they are being slighted by society. Because before a person can have the will to create change, before they even understand why change is necessary, relationship must be nurtured.

* * *

We were told to put the gun on the ground and our hands in the air as the police officer had his hand on his right hip. I shouted that it was just a pellet gun; he repeated his demand. I placed the gun in the snow and we followed the officer’s orders, slowly approaching single file with our hands in the air.

Our only punishment was standing out in the cold for fifteen minutes with our hands exposed, turning red from winter’s bite. No parents were called. No dorm moms were informed. No one was shot. They even let us take the gun home.

The “perfect storm of human error” didn’t happen, in my case, for specific reasons. But “the perfect storm of gun-mania and systemic racism” did happen in the case of Tamir Rice, and Colten Boushie. Admitting our faults as a great racist continent isn’t easy, but neither is watching your unarmed son get shot.

 

Also read Beyond Bad Apples at Changing Suns Press.

Books of the Year: 2017

If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin

“Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home.”

-James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Postcards from the End of America – Linh Dinh

Simply put, many Americans have become redundant in an economy rigged to serve the biggest banks and corporations. With no one hiring us and our small businesses bankrupted by the behemoths, many of us are forced to beg, peddle, push or steal, though on a scale that’s minuscule compared to what’s practiced by our ruling thugs. As we shove dented cans of irradiated sardines into our Dollar Store underwear, they rob us of our past, present and future.

-Linh Dinh, Postcards from the End of America, Lower-Class Upper Manhattan, p180

All Quiet On The Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

Angels – Denis Johnson

This Accident of Being Lost – Leanne Simpson

Requiem for the American Dream – Noam Chomsky

The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin

Going to Meet the Man – James Baldwin

Other Works of Note
A Love Hat Relationship
Book One
Tour Book

Albums of the Year: 2017

Propagandhi – Victory Lap (2017)

Gouge Away – , dies

D.A. Kissick – Much Later (2017)

Close Talker – Lens (2017)

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson – f(l)ight

Figure Walking – The Big Other (2017)

Big Thief – Capacity (2017)

Julia Jacklin – Don’t Let The Kids Win

Daniel Romano – Modern Pressure (2017)

Kacy & Clayton – The Siren’s Song (2017)

Tim Barry – High on 95 (2017)

Alvvays – Antisocialites (2017)

Nap Eyes – Though Rock Fish Scale

Mo Kenney – The Details (2017)

Other Notable Works
Ballsofrice.bandcamp.com/audio

Fuck Art, man

Sometimes they say that I work in the Arts. Sometimes they call it the industry. I tend to believe I work in the business of happiness; making people happy by selling them Art pressed into wax and Art pressed onto cotton, manufactured by people who are unhappy, someone’s boot pressed in the middle of their back, picking cotton, weaving cotton, sewing cotton, inhaling cotton, shipping cotton. And maybe wax.

Happiness follows the law of conservation of mass. Happiness cannot be created or destroyed. The total mass of the reactants equals the total mass of the products.

Ice to water, water to steam.

Former-happiness to cotton. Cotton to t-shirt. T-shirt to Art. Art to happiness.

Art doesn’t walk around town handing out twenty-dollar bills or cab vouchers or new rental lease agreements. Art doesn’t have its lifeguard safety—it doesn’t save people who are already drowning. Art is like whiskey, it makes you feel warm even though you’re losing your leg to the cold.

Where was Art when your friend was evicted by Regina Housing Authority and slept outside for a month and died in his friend’s kitchen? Had we finally convinced him to draw a picture for the Free Press, would Art have saved him?

Where was Art when your wheelchair-bound friend kept getting his cigarettes stolen by his brother who could have been painting miraculous animal scenes and selling prints but instead stole blind people’s cell phones to sell for crystal meth?

Art was in an office building, denying grants. Art was at a wine-and-cheese opening wearing a well-fitting shirt.

Fuck Art, man. Fuck the fact that this piece of prose is (debatably) a piece of Art.

Rocky sits in the the empty coffee room of a fading drop-in centre drawing portraits of people who may or may not exist, to give away to the first person she knows will praise her for it. Rocky draws because it’s the only thing that can help her cope with the fact that everyone she knows is dying in front of her.
Fred.
Her aunt from Cote.
Hilliard, found frozen outside.
All in a week. She draws because what the hell else can we do?

Fuck Art.

That is, unless it’s used for its one and only true purpose, as with Rocky, as the antidote in a place dripping in poison.

Review: Postcards from the End of America

The book review below first appeared in Briarpatch Magazine’s September/October 2017 edition

Postcards from the End of America
By Linh Dinh
Seven Stories Press, 2017

Bob, a 60-year-old Safeway employee from Florence, Oregon, is counting on the store staying afloat. “At my age,” he says, “it will be hard to get hired again. I don’t want to move to the city to find another job.” Before working at Safeway, he worked 31 years in a sawmill. Bob blames environmentalists on the east coast, trying to protect the endangered spotted owl, for the death of the industry that once employed his town. “Since our logging industry is mostly dead, we have to buy lumber from overseas, from people who really don’t give a hoot about the environment.”

Bob is one of the many disenfranchised workers interviewed in Linh Dinh’s book, _Postcards from the End of America_. The book contains collected essays and observations made through several years of domestic travel, originally published in various online journals, like long, descriptive letters home from towns of crumbling infrastructure as though they were tourist hotspots.

While there was widespread controversy in the 1990s about West Coast logging, Postcards analyzes Oregon and other former industrial and manufacturing centres in the U.S. that have been hollowed out by governments and corporate rule. Rather than pitting environmental justice against economic justice, Dinh impresses upon readers that environmental and other progressive movements need to accommodate and support workers of all industries; the common cause of both economic and environmental precarity is capital, Dinh points out, not social movements.

Across the U.S., cities that were once economic boom towns are now facing unemployment, poverty, homelessness, addiction, and crime. Places such as Trenton, New Jersey, one of many visited by Dinh, is famous for the Warren Street bridge over the Delaware River adorned with the lit-up phrase TRENTON MAKESTHE WORLDTAKES; it is a reminder that Trenton was once a manufacturing hub for products used around the world. A hundred years later, the slogan reads more like a bitter homage to trade deals that have left towns like Trenton in the dust.

Dinh travels by bus and train, stopping in former and current industrial metropolises such as Osceola, Iowa; Kensington, Pennsylvania; and Williston, North Dakota, snapping photos of individuals he meets (20 of which appear in full colour in the book), to survey the social landscapes. He often wanders to the nearest bar, for no matter the size or unemployment rate of a town, there is always a vendor of cheap alcohol that carries with it a rough but undeniable sense of community. These places are often the best indicator of the health and economic state of a society. In bars and on street corners, in buses and under bridges, Dinh interviews individuals tethered to the rising and falling industries that have ruled and abandoned their hometowns. Dinh gives voice to those who are rarely heard in mainstream journalism, sharing their stories of underemployment and struggle, occasionally offering simple context for how things got to be the way they are in each particular city. Many he meets blame governments for their hardships, while others, like Misfit, a bartender in Chester, Pennsylvania, believe reports that the country is in an economic recovery. Dinh lays bare pieces of their stories, at times abruptly, without forcing too much commentary, allowing the weight of their lived experience to be felt by the reader.

Dinh never makes his way to Canada, but his portraits of urban and industrial America could easily be those of Canada’s industrial and extractive regions. With Trudeau’s Liberal government approving pipelines and maintaining their commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Canadian communities are not immune from being wholly abandoned by both government and its corporate rulers, leaving the Canadian countryside filled with towns and social-scapes like those in Dinh’s postcards; in fact, this is already happening. The resource bust in Western Canada has left thousands of people without work and entire communities struggling to meet their needs, even while political campaigns left and right hawk promises of prosperity. When the industries dry up, the companies that once put towns on the map move off to exploit the land elsewhere, leaving the communities with skeletal social supports and no means of income. One admirer of Dinh’s writing, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, refers to these areas as sacrifice zones: places in which entire communities are permanently impaired by profit-chasing corporations that fatally ignore the effects of their decisions on human life, the environment, and communities. In selling off public assets to corporate control and privatizating once-public services, Trudeau and his provincial and municipal counterparts are in many ways propelling Canada into an economic situation mirroring the one described by Dinh.

Each entry was written in the final years of the Obama administration and the beginning of the Trump campaign phenomenon. Dinh’s purposeful portraiture of the financial ruin and the concurrent rise of Trump are not coincidental. Canada, with a shallow, amoral federal Liberal government that sold out its own citizenry to pipeline interests, and broke its own promises for economic and racial equality, is only setting itself up for a Trump-like oligarch to respond to the discontented masses whose employment situations will reflect those highlighted in Dinh’s prophetic book.

Dinh has no illusions about what has put so many Americans into unrecoverable poverty and poor health, and his exposé of the decline of the American empire is a call to Canadians to organize for real and lasting change in our own social, environmental, and economic landscape.

Books for People Without Homes

“You in that house yet?”

“Which one?”

“The one they were gonna work on.”

“Oh yeah, I’m in there. They’re not working on it yet.”

Click the computer a few times. Library worker stocks books. The Dewey Decimal System leaves no book without a home. They don’t lose books. Have you ever heard of a library losing a book? The man behind me mumbles, “Fuck sakes.”

“Yeah, I was gonna look into that Phoenix Group.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Yeah, but I’d be 80th on the wait list.”

“You been to SWAP? I had a few buddies who went through Souls who went there. They didn’t even have to go to Social. SWAP did it all for them.”

“No where’s it? Albert? Like by the McDonalds? Ok. No, Detox told me that Phoenix would do all the Social Assistance stuff for you, you wouldn’t even have to talk to them, which is good, since Social is so useless nowadays. But then you’re 80th on the waitlist.” 

Spend fifteen hours in two days clicking the mouse around white farmer caps, calling people on farms asking if they are willing to be in a book about hats. Write short blurbs about hats and how they relate to institutional racism and amoral government. Brainstorm where you can donate the theoretical money from selling unsellable hat books to help alleviate the housing crisis. Remember that making books doesn’t house people and raising awareness is masturbation.

“Fuck sakes,” the man behind me mumbles. Can’t find a house. Housing with obstacles. Maybe there’s a book about that. Filed under the Dewey Decimal System:

How To Find an Apartment When The World Hates You and Denies Your Existence.
821.2219 HARPAUER

A Complete Guide to Budgeting for People Whose Rent is $400 More Than Their Cheque.
821.2218 FOUGERE

LOVE YOURSELF: Family Self-Esteem When The State Doesn’t Think Your Uncle Deserves A Funeral
821.2217 BEAUDRY-MILLER

 

Lyrics of the Month: July 2017 – John Prine

 

 

While digesting Reader’s Digest in the back of a dirty book store
A plastic flag, with gum on the back fell out on the floor
Well, I picked it up and I ran outside, slapped it on my window shield
And if I could see old Betsy Ross I’d tell her how good I feel

But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore

Well, I went to the bank this morning and the cashier he said to me
“If you join the Christmas club we’ll give you ten of them flags for free”
Well, I didn’t mess around a bit, I took him up on what he said
And I stuck them stickers all over my car and one on my wife’s forehead

But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore

Well, I got my window shield so filled with flags I couldn’t see
So, I ran the car upside a curb and right into a tree
By the time they got a doctor down I was already dead
And I’ll never understand why the man standing in the pearly gates said

“But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
We’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war”
“Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore”

-John Prine, S/T, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore

Lyrics of the Month: June 2017 – Good Riddance

They’re wrong
You can love the one your heart’s with
No matter what you’re told about your choice
By any xenophobic hypocrites
Or small-minded misogynists
you’re free
You are free

It’s alright
There are those too slow to get along
Keep twisting their morality with sin
Remember life’s too short to waste on them
And we’re too smart to just condemn
We’re free
We are free
Now if we could only give them
something to believe

It’s anybody’s guess
Why some cling to prejudice and fear
For what they do not understand
Now there is nothing left but common sense
To wash away intolerance
And realize that love is all the same

And no one has the right
To legislate your life
They’re wrong

-Good Riddance, Peace in Our Time, Teachable Moments