It’s hard to vote in Kentucky. It doesn’t have to be.

Photo credit: Lexington Herald-Leader

The first time I voted in Kentucky, the election official sitting in a metal folding chair close to my electronic station noticed I was having trouble with the knobs. “Need some help there,” he said. And when I told him I was new here he proceeded to show me that the knobs worked opposite from what seemed logical.

After I finished voting he grinned and whispered, “Never trust the machine. Always use a paper ballot, that way there’s a trail.”

That was November 8, 2016. It was 8:30 a.m. And I was the only voter there.

I am not alleging fraud here. My one vote in Anderson County, which went 72 percent for Donald Trump, was of little consequence. I am telling you this story because I’ve moved 31 times and lived in six other states—Missouri, Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Washington, California—and Kentucky is by far the most difficult state I’ve ever voted in.

My polling place is close to my house, but I teach at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, a good one-hour drive during rush hour. I could try to vote before work, but what if I had kids to get to school or some other preclusion? I can’t vote on my lunch hour (too far away). And forget leaving work in time to make it to the polls before six.

To say I am concerned about the upcoming election on November 5 is an understatement, not only due to our limited hours to cast a vote, but for the issues that spur people to the polls.

Everybody talks a good game about the economy being the primary reason for voting—It’s the economy, stupid!—but the joke’s on us. People don’t tend to vote on kitchen-table issues like jobs and healthcare, and we all know it. People vote on emotional issues, and in Kentucky that issue is abortion.

In the weeks leading up to the 2018 Midterms, I canvassed for Lt. Col. Amy McGrath. If I knocked on a door and the homeowner said no, they were not voting for Amy, a good 90 percent of the time the answer to my question of why was singular: “Abortion at nine months.”

This was, and remains, false. No woman has an “abortion” at the end of a pregnancy. They give birth. And then, based on the health (or lack thereof) of the baby after it’s born, parents are sometimes faced with one of the most devastating decisions they will ever make. A decision that has no business being forced on them by the government.

So why was this issue—an issue not based in any medical or moral reality—the number one, if not the sole, reason for how they cast their vote?

I would argue this: It is much easier to feel like you’re doing one seemingly righteous thing than to have to confront the overwhelming barrage of real-world problems facing our families and our neighbors, and vote accordingly.

According to U.S. News and World Report, Kentucky ranks an embarrassing 10th from the bottom, 40th out of the 50 states, with a median household income of $26,779. I would like Gov. Matt Bevin, Sen. Mitch McConnell, and other elected officials to tell us how our families are supposed to thrive, or even survive, on this in 2019?

Kentucky’s detailed rankings are even worse:

#44 Economic Opportunity
#45 Fiscal Stability
#43 Pre-K through 12
#43 Higher Education
#44 Employment
#47 Healthcare Quality
#46 Public Health

I think a lot about the families behind those doors I knocked on for McGrath in 2018, many in the poorer sections of the county, and it infuriates me to see them hoodwinked by politicians and preachers into voting on one issue that has zero to do with their jobs, income, healthcare, education, or the futures of their children.

I spent a decade in California. I voted in person one time. I voted by mail, at my leisure, while sitting at my kitchen table, weeks in advance. That’s how easy voting should be.

Why do Kentuckians vote from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.? I can only conclude that our current elected officials do not care to make voting any more accessible. That, in fact, they prefer we do not vote.

Kentucky deserves better. You deserve better. Which is why I beg you, somehow some way, to get out there and vote on November 5. Vote on the real issues. And show them they work for you.

The cool kids’ table

A feminist, a musician, and a political cartoonist walk into a bar  …..  

This week I got to hang out with some of my favorite people. Our 1 hour conversation went almost 2, and we talked everything from Kentucky politics to Trump to education to bacon and mashed potato pizza to God. Thanks to host Kevin Hale for inviting me to the cool kids’ table. This was sooooo much fun.

The fallout

Don’t bother, it won’t matter, they don’t care.

These were the words I heard most when I said I was going to write a letter to the Anderson County Schools superintendent and board questioning the political nature of the now-infamous “Make America Great Again, Trump those Patriots” homecoming banner. “Good luck with that!” a man laughed. “Oh honey, bless your heart,” said another.

In a county that voted 72% for Trump, you may wonder about my expectations in writing such a letter. I certainly did not expect agreement. Oh no, never that. But I did expect acknowledgement (i.e., thank you for sharing your concerns) or a statement that the banner was, at best, inappropriate but that the matter had been discussed and resolved internally. The end.

I was wrong to expect this. Instead, I received a reply from board member Peggy Peach (whom I do not know) in which she made a joke using the word “Biden” and told me to “lighten up.” A response so unprofessional I gave up and forwarded the entire email string to Superintendent Sheila Mitchell.

Contrary to the warnings I’d received—don’t bother, it won’t matter, they don’t care—I trusted in my heart that the superintendent had this covered. I am a teacher, I thought, and she is a teacher. Teachers know what to do. And she will do what is required to bring all of this to a reasonable and peaceful end.

I was wrong again.

The Oct. 14 board meeting opened, as usual, with a prayer. I was sitting in front of Petra Gonzalez as she spoke through tears, this brave, young, Hispanic woman, alone in a room full of white people, pleading with the board to be heard, to be understood. As she spoke, I watched the panel up front. You’d have thought Ms. Gonzalez was reading the phone book. Thanks, next up, the budget for the soccer field!

Imagine if someone had had the courage to get up from behind those powerful, board member name plates to hug Ms. Gonzalez or shake her hand, to offer comfort to a woman clearly in pain? Imagine that picture on the front page of the paper.

How hard would it have been to say, “I’m sorry, I did not see it that way, thank you for coming here and giving us your perspective.” Dear God, how hard? Apparently, too hard.

Sadly, the story does not end here.

The day an article about the school board meeting appeared in this newspaper, I received a letter from a former ACHS student. This student, who asked to remain anonymous and who I will refer to generically as “he,” graduated within the last five years. He wanted to write a letter to the newspaper, he said, but his family is still here and he feared repercussions. He trusted his letter to me, instead. What follows are his key points:

Favoritism: He and his friends consistently felt wealthier students and athletes, particularly football players, received special treatment and got off easier than others when they found themselves in trouble. “Regardless of how good you were,” he said, “someone else would be put on a pedestal.”

Bullying: He describes an overall atmosphere of homophobia, and he specifically describes the time a student came to school with water balloons in the back of his truck. “When an openly LGBTQ student was walking into class,” he writes, “one student mentioned throwing them at her along with crude remarks about her sexuality, with the only reaction being laughs. ACHS has a bullying problem.”

Lack of proper education: “Our world is huge,” he writes. “English is not the only language and culture in the U.S., and Christianity is not the only religion…. Top tier universities and Governor’s Scholars programs are no longer looking for students with high GPAs and test scores. They are looking for what students can offer as a whole.”

He ends by asking that everyone understand he is not attacking ACHS. Quite the opposite. “I want my hometown to thrive,” he writes, “ but it can’t unless we address the underlying problems and make dedicated efforts to fix them. To those who deny this and say, ‘If you don’t like it, leave,’ you are signing a tombstone by kicking out future generations. Remember, the world is bigger than ourselves.”

When the story of the school board meeting hit this newspaper’s Facebook page—the same day I received the above-referenced letter—hateful comments started rolling in, almost 400 in all, with words like butt-hurt, fucking snowflake, Trump 2020!, “did the evil banner trigger a libtard and make her cry? Boo hoo,” and “he’s our president, majority voted him in, majority supports, respect the system.”

Maybe the board’s legal counsel could scroll through those 400 comments and tell us again how the banner, and it’s predictable fallout in today’s political climate, was not political.

At 10:05 a.m. that day—still ignoring those “don’t bother, it won’t matter, they don’t care” warnings—I hopefully emailed the superintendent and the board, begging them to make a statement, begging them to put a stop to all of this. The superintendent responded that she does not monitor the newspaper’s Facebook page.

Fair enough. I don’t monitor it either. But you know who does? You know who’s online watching us, watching all of this? Our kids.

Take away his damn phone

Photo posted by Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, thanking the the president for his leadership AFTER said president handed our partners, the Kurds, over to Turkey and to their likely deaths.

When I was in 9th grade, I got in trouble on the phone.

A group of us had crashed a wedding reception in the church gym where we snuck red solo cups of beer from the keg. The next morning, desperate as I was for the cool kids to think I was cool, too, I dragged our hallway phone into my bedroom to brag. A girlfriend who’d spent the night got on our kitchen extension and, while I was doling out the details, thought it would be funny to hand my mother the phone.

It was funny, alright. I learned my cool friend wasn’t such a good friend, I got grounded, and I lost phone privileges for a month.

Forty years and a spate of smart technology later, I’m starting to think the president, much like 14 year-old me, isn’t so smart when it comes to the phone.

Two weeks ago, a Whistleblower rang the alarm about his July 25 call with the Ukrainian president—a call the president insists was perfect, even as his own transcript shows him asking for a personal, political favor (an investigation of the Bidens) before releasing military aid—which prompted the House of Representatives to launch an impeachment inquiry.

Then, as if he weren’t in enough trouble, he stood on the White House lawn and told reporters he thought China should investigate the Bidens as well, prompting the following response from Republican Sen. Mitt Romney: “By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.”

So how did the president spend the first weekend in October? With friends? With family? With his grandchildren or young son?

Of course not. He spent his weekend the way he always does, like a lonely teenager, pouting in his room, on the phone, desperately trying to prove he is one of the cool kids.

In a few long-winded tweets, he attacked Sen. Romney, who was pictured spending time with his grandchildren at a pumpkin patch, calling the senator “a pompous ass” and suggesting it is Romney who should be IMPEACHED in all-caps. (Note: there is no such thing as impeaching a senator.)

He then went on ad nauseam, tweet after raging tweet, about how mean Democrats are, about whistleblowers and losers and Sleepy Joe.

But he saved his biggest, most dangerous, hurrah for Sunday night, when he reportedly blindsided the Pentagon in a phone call with Erdogan wherein he promised immediate withdrawal of American security forces from the Syrian border, abandoning the Kurds who have fought beside our troops and against terrorism, exposing them to almost-certain slaughter by Turkey’s military.

The same withdrawal he committed to back in December that prompted the immediate resignation of General James Mattis, his Secretary of Defense. Remember him?

I wonder, where are the pro-lifers at times like this? Maybe our very own Gov. Matt Bevin, Sen. Maj. Leader Mitch McConnell, or Rep. Andy Barr could explain what exactly is pro-life, or even pro-American, about leaving our friends, the Kurds, to die on the battlefield.

As my mother would say, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Consider the leaders of the countries he calls friends—Saudi Arabia, North Korea, China, Russia, Turkey—authoritarian regimes with little to no respect for basic human rights. What is his attraction and supplication to these tyrants about? What is in it for him, and for them?

In this latest episode with Erdogan, President Trump’s “chumminess has unsettled both appointed and elected officials suspicious of Mr. Erdogan’s repressive policies, Islamist sympathies and deepening relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

Three years into his presidency, you have to wonder if the president does not understand the national security implications of his phone conversations, the embarrassment that is his Twitter feed, or the dangers of his chosen friends. Or if he simply doesn’t care.

How, I ask, is there not one family member, cabinet appointee, senator or congressman in Washington D.C. who is concerned enough to take away his phone, to direct him to better friends, to keep him out of trouble?

How is there not a single person in the president’s orbit as smart as the mother of a 14 year-old girl?

 

Teach your children well


When I first saw the photo of this banner from Friday night’s Anderson County High School homecoming game, I was in Boston, packing to head home after spending two weeks with my 4 month-old grandson. Minutes earlier, I’d gone online to make sure my flight was on-time, where it was impossible to miss the avalanche of reports about impeachment and the president’s latest tweets. There was also Breitbart’s front page with a photo/story about CNN’s Jake Tapper, above it the words “Trump .45 Caliber Cartridge,” an ad for a shell-casing being sold as a trinket.

I tell you this for context. Teenager or adult, conservative or liberal, this is the world we live in.

While I was with my grandson I made a playlist of songs to sing with him. The Beatles, of course, made my list, as well as Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Dolly, Willie, The Eagles, and more. The banner—for which I place 100 percent responsibility with the adults, not the kids who made it—brought to mind this classic from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young:

Teach your children well.
Their father’s hell
Did slowly go by.
And feed them on your dreams.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that an overt political statement (even if you’re playing a team called the Patriots) is inappropriate for a high school football game, what dreams are we feeding our children these days? What is it about this president’s behavior that sets a good example for our kids?

Is it his never-silent Twitter feed where he calls the press “enemy of the people,” calls Democrats “savages,” and slaps childish nicknames on everyone he disagrees with, from war heroes to world leaders? If your child treated another child this way, would you cheer his behavior?

Is it the way he uses the bully pulpit to demean women, calling them dog, pig, low IQ, horse-face, crying lowlife? “Grab ‘em by the pussy?” Is this how we want to teach our sons, our grandsons, to treat women?

Is it his rallies where people still proudly wear “Trump that Bitch” t-shirts? Because at this point the slogan is so baked-in it came immediately to mind when I saw the words “Trump those Patriots” on the banner.

The banner, and the drama now surrounding it, reminded me of the infamous speech our “Make America Great Again” president gave at the Boy Scout Jamboree, the one where he trashed his predecessor, complained about “fake media,” and told a long story about a wealthy New York playboy with a yacht who led a “very interesting life,” adding, but “you’re Boy Scouts so I’m not going to tell you what he did.” Wink wink.

For all our talk about family values and morality, it’s not the lyrics of “Teach Your Children” that capture the constant reality TV spectacle that is 2019. It’s more like Nickelback’s “Rock Star.”

It’s like the bottom of the ninth and I’m never gonna win
This life hasn’t turned out
Quite the way I want it to be.
(Tell me what you want)

We all just wanna be big rockstars
And live in hilltop houses, drivin’ 15 cars
The girls come easy and the drugs come cheap
We’ll all stay skinny ’cause we just won’t eat
And we’ll hang out in the coolest bars
In the VIP with the movie stars
Every good gold digger’s gonna wind up there
Every Playboy bunny with her bleach blond hair.

In his 2013 autobiography, songwriter Graham Nash explained his inspiration for “Teach Your Children.” He’d seen a Diane Arbus photo of a boy about 10 years old, his face “bristled with intense anger. He had a plastic grenade clenched in a fist [and] the consequences it implied startled me. I thought, ‘If we don’t start teaching our kids a better way of dealing with each other, humanity will never succeed.’”

It is in this context that I see the banner—a banner the adults in our school system apparently said was A-OK for a high school football game—and question intent. What did you think would happen? Did it feel good for the teachers or coaches or parents involved to knowingly create this kerfuffle? Because there is no way, not in today’s divisive and hateful political environment, that the adults in the room didn’t know. You knew.

You knew, and you let your students create and color and hoist a sign that would poke a finger in your neighbor’s eye. That’s the story here, not the banner. This is what you’re teaching our kids.

Give President Trump his Nobel Prize

This week at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), President Trump told reporters, “I think I’m going to get a Nobel Prize for a lot of things, if they gave it out fairly, which they don’t.”

Let’s do it, people. Let’s give the man his prize. Let’s enshrine his place in history as the first man, the first president, to receive the Nobel Prize while being impeached for violating the Constitution of the United States.

Surely, no one has worked harder for such a prize these last few years, racking up a miles-long list of, in his own impervious parlance, “a lot of things.” The man’s got a point. Many points, in fact. And while we could begin with his latest debonair foray, withholding almost $400 million in aid to Ukraine and then calling the new Ukrainian president to have a little chat about investigating his top political rival, how about we go back to the beginning. To simpler times.

For more than five years before becoming president in 2016, Mr. Trump promoted the lie, falsehood, fabrication, deception, invention, fiction, tall-tale, whopper that Barack Obama, our first African-American president was not born in the U.S. The sheer fortitude of such a prolonged, malevolent effort was at the very least—what’s the word?—indecorous, and deserves more than an honorable mention.

Recall that Toni Morrison, ”who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality,” became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

And how dare we speak of literature, of visionaries, of American reality and our reality TV star president—You’re fired!—without paying tribute to an original, Trump University and the $25M settlement in which, as the New York attorney general stated, “victims of Donald Trump’s fraudulent university will finally receive the relief they deserve … [though] some elderly plaintiffs who paid $20,000-plus in tuition died waiting to receive their checks from the settlement.”

But wait, you ask, what about his accomplishments since being elected, what of his breathtaking mastery of the presidency, of foreign affairs?

Surely we all recall his first act as president, when he stood before the Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters and said, honoring the stars of the dead patriots on the wall behind him, “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth, right?”

And yet, not to be outdone, even by himself, “the most shocking episode for the CIA came last July in Helsinki, when Trump publicly accepted President Vladimir Putin’s smug assurances that Russia had not meddled in the 2016 presidential election—even though the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that Russia had.”

Then, there was the president’s first, official, overseas trip to the Middle East—a first for a U.S. president—where he was warmly feted by his friends, the Saudis, who reportedly own the entire 45th floor of Trump Tower. The same Saudis who harbored 9/11 terrorists.

But I digress.

Mr. Trump has since dismissed, as one does, the formal U.N. investigation indicating that the murder and dismemberment with a bone saw of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi was a gruesome, premeditated, “extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.”

And who can forget those love letters—Love letters! Obama with his fancy Nobel Prize never got love letters!—from North Korea’s Kim Jung Un who, after multiple meetings with Art of the Deal tragedian and raconteur Trump, “has continued to test short-range ballistic missiles and has made no firm commitments to stop testing submarine launched missiles.”

The Nobel Prize is awarded in only 6 areas: literature, peace, physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics. This seems shortsighted, does it not? What if the president is right? What if it’s not fair?

What if, now stick with me here, Alfred Nobel (inventor, entrepreneur, scientist, poet, and businessman) who established the prize in 1895 was egregiously remiss in not adding “trust in tyrants” to the list?

As Congress begins impeachment proceedings, based in part on a whistleblower complaint buried weeks ago by the White House, let’s do it. Let’s make it right! Let’s put aside the lofty vicissitudes of visionary force and poetic import of Toni Morrison. Let’s lift to the heavens the latest horrifying scandal in Mr. Trump’s long list of horrifying scandals and give the man his Nobel Prize.

Admit it. He has, as he so humbly reminded us at the UNGA, done “a lot of things.”

The Professor of Immortality

It may not feel like Fall — it remains 90 and bone-dry here in Kentucky — but it’s still time for reading both the newly released and getting to those books that have been languishing a little too long on your nightstand.

Here’s what I’ve read so far this month, and I have good news. Margaret Atwood is a genius, yes, but she also remains a riveting storyteller. Stephanie Land’s memoir will inspire you and break your heart. And you won’t be able to put down AJ Finn’s thriller, even if it’s got one of those “the woman” titles that make me roll my eyes because don’t you expect publishers and marketers to be a hell of a lot more creative?

But I point you to the surprise, to the gem on top of this stack: Eileen Pollack’s The Professor of Immortality. Ms. Pollack is equal parts scientist and novelist, and I loved the tension between Maxine and her work, a woman who’s dedicated her life to studying our obsession with technology, and our naïveté about the possible, and even inevitable, human consequences.

Loneliness. That’s what they ought to be studying…. All those geniuses in Silicon Valley keep inventing gadgets to distract themselves from their pain.

Nothing she says in Intro to Future Studies will help [her students] get into graduate school. And yet, they enroll in her class. They want someone to advise them. How can they find meaningful work? Contentment? Courage? Love? She wants to tell them a young man once sat in these same seats, and if she had been a wiser teacher, she might have been able to make him see that his arguments were flawed, his extremism wasn’t warranted, his anger needed to be tempered by compassion.

I don’t want to say more, because I don’t want to give anything way. The Professor of Immortality comes out October 1st. Pre-order here, or from your favorite local bookstore. You won’t want to put it on your nightstand with all the others. You’ll want to read it right off and talk about it with friends.

And here’s to Fall weather … if it ever gets here.