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Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

Much has been written about Gregory Boyle, the founder and Executive Director of Homeboy Industries, a social reinsertion program for gang members in Los Angeles, but Tattoos on the Heart is the first book written by Boyle himself. An LA native, Father Boyle has been working with gangs since 1985.

In 1992, with a sizable donation from Hollywood Agent Ray Stark, Boyle opened his first business, the Homeboy Bakery, a place where gang members could find employment once they decided to leave gang life. Over the years, the number of businesses has expanded to include Homegirl Café, Homeboy Maintenance, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandizing, and the most successful, Homeboy Silkscreen.

Another important component of Father Boyle's work is the tattoo removal unit, which obviously makes reinsertion possible. However, it is the counseling services and one-on-one discussions with this remarkable man that has led many young gang members down the road to change. But as the book points out, the "success" or the triumph-over-adversary narrative, so prevalent in pop culture, does not happen quickly. In fact, actual progress in the streets is a very slow process, or as Boyle describes it, "three steps forward, five steps back."

Now believe it or not, this book is very funny. Boyle tells both hilarious and moving tales of some of the people he has known over the years. He has attended 167 funerals since he began his ministry in1985, and what is most amazing, besides his resilience, is Boyle's ability to see beyond the attitude, tattoos and criminal records, in other words, his faith in those seated before him.

Boyle is often asked about his success stories, and he likes to quote Mother Theresa, "We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful." According to Boyle, in salivating for possible instances of  success, you overlook the people who carry the heaviest burdens and stop seeing the person seated in front of you.

I found this book extremely uplifting. While reading it, I started to think about how quick we are to judge others. The faster we classify and categorize people, the less likely we are to talk to them if they don't meet a certain standard. The root of the problem seems to be our attitude towards success. We live in a success-obsessed society, as if there was no other way to approach life. Yet, I wonder how many people who have attained "success" have actually experienced fulfillment...or maybe I've been reading too much Buddhism.

This book is a well-needed reminder that we are not all born with the same privileges in life and that fulfillment may well come through connection and kinship.

Further reading on Fr. Gregory Boyle's work:
Homeboy Industries: "Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job"

Other reviews
Reads from Men 
Happy Home For Broken Hearts
Death to the Dictator! by Afsaneh Mosadam
The Selves by Sonja Alhers
Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber

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St-Viateur: the Polish Bazaar

Every year in the basement of the St-Viateur church, a large bazaar is held. Although the shamrocks on the outside of this imposing church would lead passersby to believe that it serves the Irish community, which may have been the case in decades past, today the congregation is largely Polish, and the bazaar is a great chance to pick up some beautiful Polish items and enjoy some Polish food for next to nothing.

As can be expected, there are hand-painted wooden Easter eggs, which usually cost about $10 each in a specialty store, some nesting dolls and, of course, amber jewelry. I learned today from the vendor that amber is worn to ward off throat infections and as a protective measure against stress. In fact, she told me that "I could spit on her if I wanted, but nothing would cause her stress!"

Although the amber she had was tempting and inexpensive, I didn't find exactly what I was looking for. God knows after being sick for 10 days, I would do ANYTHING to protect myself from stress and throat infections. I did, however, find two beautiful hand-painted pen covers for a dollar each. When the tiny tube with ink is used up, you just put in a new refill.You can see one of them on the left in the basket along with the Easter eggs I bought. Double click on the picture to enlarge.

I'm a big fan of church bazaars. They are great for finding vintage items at low prices.

Related posts

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For the Love of Vinyl
Airing Our Dirty Laundry
Filming on St-Viateur

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Filming on St-Viateur

On St-Viateur last weekend for a family lunch, I noticed this filming and took a picture to show that there is always something happening in our neighbourhood. On our way to the table at the B&M restaurant (I know...not the most appetizing of names), I showed the picture to my husband, who informed me that the monsieur with the glasses and unruly hair was Xavier Dolan-Tadros. I pointed to the dog hiding behind the sign, looking as if he were waiting for his cue.
"Do you know who he is?" My husband asked.
"No," I said, as I took off my son's coat.
"He won a few awards at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival," he said.
"So why is he filming on St-Viateur outside the B&M restaurant?" I asked, "There must be more exotic settings elsewhere."
"Probably using every opportunity he has to keep learning," he said.

As I looked at the menu, I noticed the B&M served "les flotteurs" and erupted into laughter.
My husband asked me what was so funny, and I told him that they should have called the restaurant the M&B.

Book Giveaway this week: Heave by Christy Ann Conlin, also the book I recommended for the Canada Reads 2011.

Hood-related posts
The Mile End Buzz Around Beekeeping
For the Love of Vinyl
Airing Our Dirty Laundry

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Review: Enough! by Chönyi Taylor

Enough! A Buddhist Approach to Finding Release from Addictive Patterns
Chönyi Taylor
Snow Lions Publications

This review was also posted at Elevate Difference.

Ordained by the Dalai Lama in 1995, Chönyi Taylor is a retired psychotherapist who fuses Buddhist teachings with western psychology to assist psychotherapists and health care professionals in helping individuals to break the pattern of addiction. In Enough! Taylor states in her acknowledgments that the most insidious addiction is not related to drugs, but to our own self-pity and small-mindedness. In her words, addiction is primarily a state of mind, the result of an initial personal decision that is repeated until it becomes habit-forming or compulsive. The problem is not the availability of alcohol, drugs, sex or food (pick yer poison), but our initial and subsequent choices to use them for short-term pleasure.

Because addiction begins in the mind, this is where the addictive pattern has to be broken. The process is slow and involves, first and foremost, recognizing the existence of a problem and finding the motivation to change. The next step is to become mindful of what we are running away from or the things, people, places and emotions that trigger our addictive pattern. This is how we uncover the causes and effects of our addiction. Being addiction-free also involves breaking the hold of selfishness, as it only enables addiction. The self-centered mind exaggerates impending disasters if our addictive need cannot be met. Dramatics and catastrophic-thinking need to be undone by equanimity or even-mindedness. The three basic steps towards breaking the pattern are mindfulness, introspection and equanimity. Repeated practice through meditation of these three elements is intended to make them pattern forming.

Taylor gives the basics on how to meditate and ends each chapter with a meditation. In Enough! we learn that we are all addicted to something. Even if our addiction is only to negative thinking, it still unintentionally undermines our potential for satisfying happiness. Although I found mindfulness and introspection relatively easy to grasp, I had a hard time getting my head around equanimity or curbing the exaggerated thinking and emotion-fueled jumping to conclusions. But I guess I’m not alone, as the book has four meditations on that alone: equanimity towards our feelings, environment, people and ourselves. There is also an inspiring chapter on managing pain, making choices and building self-confidence.

This book is meant to be read slowly, and the meditations duly practiced, preferably with an experienced group leader to reap maximum benefit. I also recommend that you not read more than one chapter at a time or choose a chair with a very straight back, as the abundance of abstract nouns makes this book highly soporific. Although I didn’t find the real-life cases that Taylor chose to be very helpful, I found her approach to addiction extremely positive and highly enlightening.

Other Reviews:
Reads from Men 
Happy Home For Broken Hearts
Death to the Dictator! by Afsaneh Mosadam
The Selves by Sonja Alhers
Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber
Book Review: The Next Generation of Women Leaders
Book Review: The Spare Room by Helen Garner
Aya: The Secrets Come Out
Film Review: Mary and Max
Doc Review: Finding Dawn by Christine Welsh
Book Review: Violent Partners by Linda G Mills
Review: Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan
A Review of Montreal's Bixi Rental Bike

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Long-gun: A Change of Heart

Just a few posts ago, I criticized the NDP because Jack Layton refused to whip his caucus and compel his MPs  to vote in favour of saving the long-gun registry. After some extensive research into a northwestern Ontario riding, I decided that Jack did do the right thing. As I discovered, the real long-gun battle was not a city-versus-rural debate, as it was framed in the media, but rather an issue of safety-versus-onerous-bureaucracy. In other words, a compromise could have been reached, but as we all know, a solution would not have suited the Conservatives' purpose—to divide the left in Canada.

The most intense battles were in the 12 NDP ridings where MPs voted in line with their constituents' wishes. I met some very committed women who lobbied their MP to have him vote to save the registry. I'd like to thank the three women who took the time to talk to me: Donna Kroocmo, Debbie Zweep and Kari Jefford.

This article was intended for a publication, but unfortunately, by the time I submitted it, the article was no longer current.

What really happened in the rural ridings

On October 8, NDP MP Charlie Angus tabled a Private Member’s Bill to make the long-gun registry more palatable to both urban and rural voters, delivering on his party’s promise to fix rather than abolish the registry. Angus, who represents the northern Ontario riding of Timmins—James Bay, was among the 12 NDP members who voted with the Conservatives on the second reading of bill C-391 and then made the difficult decision to side with his party and narrowly defeat the bill in its third and final reading. On his controversial decision, Angus confessed to the Timmins Daily News, “Yeah, there will be a backlash. I’m going to have to live with that.”

The long-gun vote was decided more than two weeks ago, and unfortunately, Charlie Angus’s Private Member’s Bill will do little to staunch the NDP’s bleeding. Even if the bill receives the support it needs from the Liberals and Bloc Québécois, it will most likely be defeated by the Conservative-dominated Senate.

There’s no debating that the long-gun registry has been a lose-lose situation for the NDP. In keeping with his party’s tradition, Layton opted for a free vote, allowing his MPs to vote with their conscience, a great disappointment to urban NDP supporters. Although Layton’s attempt at compromise was laudable, it only pushed the bitterest of battles into the 12 NDP ridings of those MPs who voted with the Conservatives on the second reading. 

The Conservative Party’s aim was more than to pit urban voters against their rural counterparts, as was popularly believed. Instead, it was intended to create the deepest, longest rift possible. Making the best of a bad situation, Layton did the only thing he could do to mitigate a divisive tactic—put the vote in the hands of his MPs who best understood their constituents.

In the Timmins—James Bay riding, Charlie Angus had received only negative views on the long-gun registry from constituents in a riding where long-gun ownership is common and hunting is popular. This should come as no surprise as the Timmins—James Bay area spans 249,624 km2 and is home to just 80,791 people.

Angus had a change of heart after hearing from Timmins Police Chief Richard Laperrière. The MP discovered from officers in the field that they used the registry on a daily basis. After further consideration, Angus changed his mind, stating that internal police audits painted a very different picture than what he had been led to believe about the gun-registry. Also bear in mind that Charlie Angus has been re-elected twice, and in the most recent election he won handily with 17,188 votes. His closest competitor, a Liberal, received only 6,740.

Mr. Angus was able to draw on his knowledge of his constituents and his lengthy experience as an MP to make his decision, experience that other MPs didn’t have, such as Thunder Bay—Rainy River NDP MP John Rafferty, who was elected in the October 2008 federal election.

As you may recall, MPs Rafferty and Hyers were the first NDP MPs to stray from party line and vote with the Conservatives in the third and final reading of bill C-391. Mr. Hyer’s riding is located to the north of Mr. Rafferty’s. The Thunder Bay—Rainy River constituency extends from the shores of Lake Superior at Thunder Bay to the northern Minnesotan border in the south, to the Manitoba border in the east. To many constituents and outdoor enthusiasts, this area is a hunting and fishing wonderland.

An outdoor enthusiast herself, Donna Kroocmo works just 10 to 15 minutes away from fishing on one of the area’s many pristine lakes. Kroocmo is the Executive Director of the Atikokan Crisis Centre, a 10-bed women’s shelter serving 10 First Nations’ communities in Atikokan, a small town two hours west of Thunder Bay. As can be expected of someone working on the frontlines with battered women, Kroocmo does not agree with John Rafferty’s position on the long-gun registry.

“I’ve written to Mr. Rafferty twice about changing his position, and I’ve never even received a reply,” said Kroocmo, who also sits on the local police services board.

On several occasions, MP Rafferty has stated that he based his position on a flyer survey that he sent out to all 35,000 households in his riding in January 2009. Rafferty’s spokesperson said that his office received 528 responses to the survey: 504 voted to abolish the gun registry, 17 to keep it, while 7 others remained undecided.

Kroocmo said that she had never even heard of the survey. Debbie Zweep, the Executive Director of the Faye Peterson Transition House, a 24-bed women’s shelter in Thunder Bay, echoed Kroocmo’s statement.

“I have never seen this survey, nor has any of my staff,” she said.

Zweep spoke of the daily reality in her constituency. “It’s not uncommon during hunting season for people to drive around with their guns in their vehicles, and every household usually has at least one shotgun or rifle,” she said. “We aren’t saying get rid of your guns. We are just asking that they be registered.”

Zweep’s statement is similar to those that were made across the country in both large urban centres and rural communities. It was an issue of safety for everyone. Zweep was also part of a coalition that included Thunder Bay Chief of Police Robert Herman and Canadian Auto Workers’ (CAW) President (Local 229) Kari Jefford. The coalition was trying to persuade MPs John Rafferty and Bruce Hyers to change their position on the long-gun registry.

Several days before the coalition was to meet with John Rafferty, CAW President Jefford, who represents nearly 3,000 workers in Northwestern Ontario, issued this statement to the press:

This is very much a voting issue…Our brothers Rafferty and Hyers have to know that labour had a large part in getting them elected, and brother Rafferty didn’t win by all that many votes.

The day before the scheduled meeting, John Rafferty’s office called to cancel. In a heated exchange with Jefford, Rafferty’s representative stated that the coalition had already made its position public and that they had nothing further to discuss.

An NDP MP refusing to meet with a local labour leader and women’s services advocates prior to a key vote demonstrates the extent of the rift created by the long-gun registry issue in just one rural riding.

Fortunately, the Thunder Bay—Rainy River constituency was not subjected to the barrage of Conservative-funded radio ads that other constituencies endured. Mr. Rafferty’s riding did, however, receive the Conservative party’s automatic dial-outs on the Monday and Tuesday prior to the final vote, urging voters to contact their MP and make their position known.

The Conservative Party used the long-gun issue for the sole purpose of decimating the left, and although the Conservatives lost the vote, they were successful in dividing rural communities, parties and people who in the past were able to see eye-to-eye on most issues.

The only remedy for the Conservatives’ divisive politics is unity. Layton’s maneuvering managed to win the vote, and this issue is off the table for at least this parliamentary session. The left in Canada needs to lick its wounds and prepare for future battles, which there is no shortage of this session.

My previous position:
Loaded Inaction
Long-Gun Registry: What's Going On



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Reads from Men

I don't want to give anyone the idea that I don't read male authors. In fact, in the last few weeks, I have read at least four, but there are only three that I want to talk about today. All of the authors mentioned below, save the last one, are winners of major literary prizes: the International Impac Dublin, the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. But only one of them can compare to the book listed at the very end. (Psst...the author is a woman.)

Now here's a question for you reader: Why do male authors seem to get so much more press and win so many more literary prizes?

In order to keep this positive, I'll start with the book I liked the most.

DeNiro's Game by Rawi Hage

In Hage's very first novel, we meet two 20-something best friends, Bassam and George, who have grown up in the Christian sector of war-torn Beirut. Bassam desperately looks for ways to escape to Europe, while George gets involved with the Christian militia.

Hage paints a vivid picture of the city, its casualties and the harshness of daily life, right down to the dust specks. No detail is beyond his ability to describe.  If you found the Lebanese civil war confusing with its Christian and Muslim factions and its Syrian and Israeli presence, this book may clarify things for you.

This is a beautifully written book with a great twist. It was also the winner of the International Impac Dublin. I will be giving this book away this week. See details at the top of the right sidebar.

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo 

Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo is an astute observer of  small town dynamics, particularly those in Upstate New York and New England. Unfortunately, none of those realistic details can be found in That Old Cape Magic. We do, however, get some of Cape Code through the childhood vacation memories of  Griffin, the main character. His insufferable Ivy-league educated parents, also the book's most interesting characters, found the Cape to be worthy of their annual presence after working as professors at colleges in the "Mid-fucking-West." Already a late-middle ager, Griffin has recently lost his father and finds himself driving around the Cape trying to find the best place to sprinkle his ashes. Griffin is also in denial about his grieving, which his wife Joy eventually finds too much to bear.

Compared with Russo's Empire Falls, Nobody's Fool and the very funny Straight Man, That Old Cape Magic is my least favourite. What I disliked the most was the lack of humour, something that the author has always delivered on in the past. Russo writes in his acknowledgments that he has recently lost his mother, so maybe that explains the lack of laughs and the departure from his previous books. The Washington Post called this effort, "Marvelous . . . Utterly charming." Whateva!

I'll be dropping this off at S.W. Welch's store in the near future.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Okay, I believed the hype, and I bought the hardcover version of Freedom. As you may have all heard, Franzen made the cover of Time Magazine for his latest book with the caption "the Great American Novelist." Nine years ago, he apparently said that he had not been comfortable having The Corrections, his previous chef d'oeuvre, be part of Oprah's book club. Not learning from her previous error, Oprah chose Freedom to be part of her book club, but Franzen was apparently not partial to having her sticker on his book because he was really trying to reach out to "male readers," and he didn't think that the dudes would go for it if they saw the Oprah sticker.

Aren't most writers just happy to have people read their book?

Anyway, the book is well written. The majority of it transpires in St. Paul, Minnesota. The characters Walter and Patty Berglund are environmentally conscious parents who always do the right thing. Patty is a stay-at-home mom who dotes on her children. Walter's best friend in college is punk musician Richard, whom Patty has always had a thing for. The characters are pretty bland. In fact, the most interesting character is Walter and Patty's son who rebels against his family and becomes a Republican. Somehow I got the impression that Franzen used Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine to flesh out his storyline. Yes, the story reveals many of the contradictions that we are living with today, but the book is not that memorable. The most interesting female character is Patty's sister, an actress who lives in New York.

I'll be dropping this one off at S.W. Welch's store in the near future too.

Heave by Christy Ann Conlin

Now, this book is a gem. A used bookstore that owed me money paid me back in the only thing it had--books. This happened to be among the books I chose. Heave opens with Seraphina Sullivan, our main protagonist, spinning out of control. Although she's only 20 years old, she has both a drug and alcohol problem. She still manages to maintain her lifelong friendships with her less than perfect mates in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. Conlin writes beautifully and creates compelling characters that remain simple and completely believable. Serrie's mother is overworked because her father, although kind, does not have any skills that make him even remotely employable. Instead he collects outhouses, which he installs on their property. They also live with the grandmother and aunt who are both understanding and irritable in equal measures; in other words, the family dynamic makes for some hilarious reading. Serrie's life eventually picks up after she gets out of rehab, but she has an understandable relapse. The root of her initial breakdown is revealed at the very end.

I've never heard of Christy Ann Conlin, but the Toronto Star said that the book should come with the warning, "Excess of Talent," and I think the reviewer is right. The Globe and Mail named it one of the best books of 2002.

This is Conlin's very first novel, which is on par with Hage's first effort in terms of the quality of the writing. So where's Conlin's international award?

I'll be giving away Heave next week.

Tell me, Shonda, what do they put in Maritime water? Why do so many great writers come from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland?

Other Reviews and Related Posts
The Nikolski Coincidence
Hard Times and Used Books 

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Comics: Girls, Boys and Reading

Okay, so it wasn't the San Diego Comic-con, but the Montreal event satisfied my curiosity. We took the kids expecting to find plenty of kid friendly activities, only to discover that they were geared to the "big" kid, especially to Star Wars and Star Trek enthusiasts, which I don't count myself among. The only star I recognized was Elvira, but my husband expressed some excitement when he saw Data and Chewbacca, characters of Star Trek fame. Or was it Star Wars? There were some gifted illustrators on hand, but they didn't work fast enough to hold my three-year-old's attention, so we kept walking.

What I hadn't expected was the many stands of vintage comics, and I found myself once again taking a stroll down memory lane.

As a kid, I loved comics, but there weren't many for girls. Wonder Woman didn't appeal to my sense of adventure. Would you want to find yourself in the jaws of a large cat? (See cover below.) And although I read a lot of the Archies, they didn't really make much sense to me. Who would be interested in Archie to begin with? And too much of the storyline revolved around Betty and Veronica competing for Archie's attention, setting up generations of rigid stereotypical gender roles.

I took this random picture of an Archies comic cover, and only noticed the content when I got home Archie: commenting on Veronica eating cake. Why does this irk me so? And they wondered where eating disorders came from in the 1980s! So where were all the comics for girls? Possibly the subject of a future post.

Seeing these comics stirred some vivid childhood memories that were even clearer than those of Doctor Seuss. I could readily recall memories of the Tarzan and Spiderman comics. Was it because we also watched the Spiderman cartoon and Tarzan on TV, or was it because of the realism of the images? Maybe I thought that this was closer to real life. Not very encouraging... Look at the position and costume of the woman. Obviously, she's not on her way to becoming an executive any time soon.

At any rate, the impact of comics was much greater than I ever thought, and if they still can attract adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s then why weren't our teachers capitalizing on comics as a teaching aid when we were children.

As a child, comics were low culture and apparently inappropriate for learning how to read. I thought that this had changed until my daughter's teacher discouraged her from bringing in a comic for reading time. But I'm still unclear if it was this particular line of comics (Captain Biceps), or if it applied to all of them.

Do you know a boy or girl who doesn't like to read?

According to the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), comics may be the key to increasing literacy among boys, who have traditionally lagged behind girls in reading. In fact, a Program for International Student Assessment study found that 15-year-old Canadian girls outscored 15-year-old Canadian boys by 32 points.

Apparently more visual learners, boys don't enjoy reading pages and pages of text and instead opt for shorter types of prose, such as newspapers, magazines and comics. Boys are also more interested in fantasy, science fiction, adventure stories, how-tos and comics than girls, which the CCL reports are under-represented in traditional classrooms.

But comics teach other things that are not taught in prose-based books--visual literacy or the ability to understand and respond to a visual cues. Comics apparently teach young readers to follow a sequence of events, predict what will happen next and enhance a child's ability to read symbols.

What's more, comics give all students more practice in understanding printed material and tracking left to right and top to bottom. The CCL also points out that comics are a great tool for teaching a second language and for assisting students with learning disabilities.

Overall, comics constitute a great learning tool. We just need more of them that appeal to girls.

Super-powered Literacy, the Benefits of Comics in the Classroom

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For the Love of Vinyl
Like Riding a Bike
A Summer Ride for Summer Weather

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Ghoulish Garb

October 31 is fast approaching, and my daughter could hardly contain her excitement when we received a $6.00 coupon for the Hallowe'en Mega Sale. The store specializes in scary decorations and costumes for babies, kids, adults (very adult) and pets. I could have spent a lot more time in the store, but both my children were frightened by the props, which were highly effective.

Yes, the Freddy Kruger made me scream when his blade came down unexpectedly, but thankfully, I was not alone. I heard at least one other scream before we left the store. An additional horror was trying to find the store on Taschereau Boulevard in Brossard, a city on the South Shore that we rarely visit. View the Pirate Corpse below. This is the first time I've used the video option on my camera.(Verrrry exciting and just 34 seconds.)

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