Category Archives: Politics

Top Reads of 2011

For the first time in years, I am all over this holiday season.  I’ve decorated my house, found a gorgeous new wreath for front door, and hung the stockings.  We’ve watched the first half of It’s A Wonderful Life.  The tree has been up for almost 48 hours and the puppy has not knocked it down or eaten the ornaments or been electrocuted by the lights.

As this year winds itself down, I’m taking a look back at my top reading pleasures of 2011.  Here they are, in no particular order:












In making my list I made some discoveries:

1.  I’m growing up.  My preferences have become less highbrow (what I’m supposed to read) and more about what I enjoy.

2.  I read far fewer books in 2011 than I thought I did.  I spent more time engrossed in author interviews and great, long essays.

3.  I tend to read and re-read my favorite authors.  I need to give the lesser-knowns more of a chance.

4.  I don’t like fiction as much as I used to.  In fact, I’m reading a National Book Award winner now and I feel manipulated.

5.  The memoir is not dead.  In fact, it’s barely got it’s sea legs.  Peoples’ real lives, and how they choose to make them into art, are endlessly fascinating.

What did you discover about your reading self?  Have any favorite books to share?

Hair Flammable, Light Fire

This is me at 10 years old. Before I knew bad things could happen to 10 year olds.

11/11/11.  Or, all those 1’s equal 6.  Here’s my 6.

1.  PENN STATE.  The Wall Street Journal published the grand jury presentment in its entirety.  If you haven’t, you need to read it.  By the end, you will have zero empathy for any adult involved.  So many people knew this was going on.  For years.  And we continue to wonder why kids don’t tell.  Every adult who knew Sandusky was abusing kids and didn’t go directly to the police should be treated as (alleged) criminals.

2.  THE GRAD STUDENT.  Let’s take the graduate assistant witness. As Maureen Dowd said in her column, “It would appear to be the rare case of a pedophile caught in the act, and you’d think a graduate student would know enough to stop the rape and call the police.”  This grad student was no kid; he was 28 years old, a grown man.  Did he stop the crime?  No.  Did he contact police?  No.  He called his dad for advice, then went home.

3.  TWEET TWEET.  That any of us give a rat’s ass what Ashton Kutcher is tweeting — and that it’s news — is just one more nail in my coffin of hating the very idea of Twitter.  I know, I know, some of you will tell me there are benefits, and I’m sure there are, but anytime you give us humans a tool to communicate this quickly and publicly (i.e., before thinking) not enough good can come of it to justify it’s existence.

4.  WORD PLAY.  Do you ever hear the word “twitter” and think “fritter”?

5.  THE THINKERS.  Somebody sent me, via e-mail, this thing called “The Lawyers Party.”  At first I thought it was a mistake; then, one of those too-circulated internet jokes.  But no.  You can find it here at the American Thinker.  Apparently all that’s wrong with America is that there are too many lawyers.  That George W. Bush was not a lawyer, and that Barack Obama is a lawyer explains everything.  I don’t know about you, but I’m so glad that’s cleared up!  Now, about the economy, jobs, healthcare, …..

6.  THOSE 53 SECONDS.  When I watch the Rick Perry debate video, the one where he’s stuck for those 53 seconds, I get no joy.  None.  The rising elation, the almost-snickering, on the faces of all the other candidates as Perry stands there blanked-out, makes me cringe.  These people want to help us?  They want to be the leaders of our country.

Is your hair on fire this week?

Witness the Execution

I did not sleep last night.  Before padding up the stairs to bed, I turned on CNN and watched those who’d witnessed the execution of Troy Davis step to the podium, big notebooks clutched to their chests.  I listened as each person give his or her account of Mr. Davis’s last hours, last minutes, seconds.  And though I don’t know Troy Davis or his family and I don’t really pray, I said a little prayer for them and weeped my way to bed.

I don’t believe in the death penalty.  Though I admit that, sometimes, when a horrific crime occurs — with witnesses and confessions and undisputed evidence —  I question myself.  OJ Simpson comes to mind.  Casey Anthony.  At 2 and 3 a.m. I was imagining little Caylee Anthony, abandoned in those dark woods, and her mother out in the sunshine living her life.  4 a.m.  5 a.m.  Troy Davis is dead.

In the Davis case, the key witnesses all recanted their testimony.  How do you put someone to death with that kind of doubt?  I can’t sleep, but I figure Casey Anthony is resting in a nice warm bed tonight, and maybe she wakes up thinking she might be due for a salon appointment, should she have eggs or cereal for breakfast?, what will she do with her day….

We have no idea what the hell we’re doing.


This year my friend Charles McLeod published his first novel in the U.K., AMERICAN WEATHER, a brutal satire on our current way of life.  One of the big events in the book is a public, televised execution.  A fine new way to make millions!  Ask yourself, if significant money could be raised by advertising executions — to invest in our schools, get healthcare for children, to put the unemployed back to work — would you watch?

I’ve only read the first 30 pages of this book, but my husband finished it last week and I hope he leaves his comments here later.  You can read a review here.  This is the publisher’s description:

Meet Jim Haskin. He’s forty years old. He’s worth around thirty-five million. He runs his own San Francisco ad firm, American Weather. AmWe’s image is green, modern and forward-looking: if your product is upcycled or hydro or vegan, they’ll make you an ad. But behind the scenes, Jim manufactures ways to support the old captains of American industry; bleach, beer and guns. But all is not well: Jim’s wife, Denise, has been in a coma for over a year, a state brought on by a drug Jim helped promote. A live-in nurse, a former Salvadorian gang member, helps Jim tend to her. And Haskin’s only child, Connor, has been sent away to a boarding school three thousand miles away, after assaulting a student at his former high school. Orphaned at 14, Jim and his three closest friends grew up at Mr Hand’s Home for Well-Behaved Boys. All have profited from the American dream.

In 2008, on the brink of the Presidential election, the quartet finds themselves short on cash and look to Jim for a solution. The scheme he devises involves a Death Row inmate, pay-per-view television, and most of America’s major corporations. Everything is set for it to be his greatest achievement yet.

War College

A few of us on our first day at the War College, at the front door of the Commandant's house.

In 2009, I spent a week at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA.

Isn’t that where you’d expect to find most California liberals?

The War College is where high-ranking officers spend a year getting their Masters in Strategic Studies.  To say my time there was an eye-opener would be a supreme understatement.  I arrived with my preconceived opinions and prejudices, my anger at George W. Bush, the Media, and the Conservative Company Line; I left a week later with a more open mind and 30 new friends.

You can read my essay about the experience here, on-line in War, Literature, and the Arts, out this week.

Here’s an excerpt:


By the time the War College did, in fact, pick me to spend the first week of June at Carlisle Barracks, President Obama had been in office four months and I had backed off from discussing anything political with anyone.  “Wish me luck,” I said to my husband as he dropped me at the airport. “Maybe I should just wear a big Miss America banner that reads Liberal Female from California Goes to off to War College and get it over with. God, I hope they don’t hate me. What if I’m the only woman in a roomful of right-wing Army brass, alpha males?”

He said, “It’s the military. Who do you think is going to be there?”


I wasn’t used to the lightening-round way these people said exactly – exactly – what they thought without any politically-correct filtering, but also without coming across as defensive or self-righteous. It took me awhile to settle in. As the afternoon wore on we agreed and disagreed, agreed to disagree, raised our voices, threw our arms in the air, banged our hands on the table, and shoved our chairs back in protest. But unlike the personal attacks I’d grown so weary of recently, we did it all without the rolling eyes or the dismissive, off-handed smirk. We even laughed.

It was that first afternoon, in a roomful of strangers, when I remembered that arguing controversial topics could be civil. We listened. We made our points. We considered opposing ideals. It reminded me of being on a high school debate team where you’ve practiced how to clearly state your views and how to listen to your opposition without fuming over. This felt like that. And this was fun.

Your Words on Other Pages

This week I received galley proofs for a 20 page political essay, printed out the pages and started blue-penning the thing.

I wrote the story a year ago — about an experience that occurred a year before that, a few months into the Obama presidency — and now here it is and I’m running my eyes across phrases and a story I barely recognize.  Did I really write this?  Are the scenes out of order?  This opening is not the right opening.  Does this story, two years on, even matter anymore?  I’m itching to rewrite the whole damned thing.

I want to rewrite it, but of course I can’t.  I’m just the fixer.  My words, my story, don’t belong to me anymore.

What happens when you see your thoughts on paper, months or years later?

Tank House, 1891

1891:  On today’s dog walk (sprained knee and all … don’t ask) I passed the neighborhood Boo Radley house and found it up for sale.  Built in 1891, historical house and neighborhood, 4 bedrooms and 1 bath, ideal for the buyer who enjoys working with older properties and wants to preserve the integrity of the house.  Large 2-story tank house attached.  Tank house?  What’s a tank house?  I have never noticed said tank house; I might need to investigate.

1891:  Carnegie Hall opens.  Telephone connection occurs between London and Paris.  Jews are tossed out of Moscow.  Paul Gaugin leaves Marseille for Tahiti.  The Empire State express train barrels from New York City to Buffalo in a record 7 hours, 6 minutes.

Blenheim Palace, the bedroom where Winston Churchill is born.

1891:  Winston Churchill is 17 years old.  At the Harrow School, he starts his military training.  He earns high marks in History and English.  Churchill will die in 1965, the year I’m born.

1891:  My great-great grandparents, Fredrick and Minnie, have emigrated from Germany and settled on a farm in the Missouri River Bottom.  In their farmhouse — and without the aid of a doctor or midwife — Minnie will give birth to ten healthy children.  Their farm (and their neighbors’ farms) take on too much water each time the Mississippi River floods, so much water that they have to move out of their homes each time.  How do you move out of your home, temporarily, in 1891, with 10 children?  After too many years and the loss of too many crops, Fredrick builds the family a house in town.  He supports them by doing carpentry work.  In his later years, after his children are grown and gone with families of their own, Fredrick becomes a master broom maker.  He goes door to door, selling his brooms.

1891.  Historic house for sale.  In California.  2-story tank house attached.

A Little More Gravy

Last month, a woman I’ve known for 10 years threw out a sentence that knocked me right off my literary high horse :  I don’t read, she said.  In fact, I haven’t read a novel since high school.  We’d been on our way out to dinner when I mentioned I’d gotten Alexandra Styron’s memoir in the mail and couldn’t wait to get home to start reading it.  It’s about growing up as William Styron’s daughter.  And Styron is my hero, I’d said, only to get the response:  I don’t know who William Styron is.  Is he an athlete?

How can you be a 60 year old, professional woman, a leader in your field, and not read?

Of course, I’ve heard the likes of this before.  A professor friend asked his American Lit class, by way of introductions, to go around the room and talk about the best book they’d read over the summer.  They were stumped; they hadn’t read a thing.  But you’re English majors! he said. An old friend heard I’d written a short story and asked me to send it to her, only to fire a note back saying, That’s not short.  That’s 20 pages long!  My own sister-in-law once informed me she’d never made it more than a few pages into any book.  Why would you spend days and days reading a book when you can watch a whole movie in two hours?

Looking back on it, the month of May was a literary blur for me.  I didn’t do so well with the reading myself.  I started no less than 25 books and couldn’t close the deal on most of them.  It was hard for me to settle in with a good story and finish it.  And it seemed like nonreaders — like those mentioned above — were coming out of the woodwork.  It made me wonder:  are we nose-in-a-book folks really that far buried in our libraries that we can’t see the other side?  This article from The Economist titled IN DEFENSE OF NOT READING offers this take on nonreaders:  Any educated American has already read enough books. Everything else you read is gravy, and hitching your wagon to the so-called dumbing down of society argument merely lends your voice to the shrill chorus of others throughout history who thought they were smarter than everybody else. 

I don’t buy the argument, but I thought about it as I watched a replay of Sarah Palin’s Paul Revere gaffe in Boston yesterday.  I’m no Sarah Palin fan, and I’ve been known to use the words “dumbing down” while talking about her.  She has no business in national politics; she can barely string a coherent sentence together.  But after watching this 30 second clip a few times, I felt sorry for her.  Then I suddenly realized that all I could remember about Paul Revere was The British are coming!  The British are coming! and I panicked.  I found myself Googling him and quick-reading his Wikipedia page.

Looks like Sarah and I could both use a little more gravy.

When Down In The Brambles

The Brambles

Please, please tell me the Obama birth question — which should have never been a question — has been put to rest.  As I paid my $5 per gallon of gas this week, with Donald Trump yapping through the radio in the car, I tried to remember how long this has been going on.  Two years?  It’s shocking to me how many articles have been written, how many conversations had, how many pundits blathered, on this non-subject.  Yet …

Two years ago I wrote a political piece (coming out this summer) wherein my Aunt Mary and I have a blow-up about this very subject.  Here’s how it went down:

My last tangle had come over the phone with my Aunt Mary from back home in Cape Girardeau, Missouri (also Rush Limbaugh’s hometown): “Your Obama is a Muslim terrorist and he wasn’t even born in the United States,” she said, matter-of-fact and not for the first time, after which I lost my mind and screamed – screamed and cursed – at my sixty-five year old diabetic, half-blind, cancer surviving, favorite aunt until she hung up on me.

What thorny non-issues have you found yourself arguing about?  What has been your waste of time?

(Un) Fair Game

This book has been on my shelf for at least a year, but this weekend I went from the first page to the last in about one day and was still, after the last sentence, sorry to see it end.  There are so many reasons to read this book.

*  Plame tells her story in a way that makes you want to keep reading — a spy thriller, I remember thinking, but with a real spy!  A female spy!  What could be more compelling?

*  How did she end up at the CIA?  Plame was in college and unsure what she wanted to do afterward.  Her mother saw an ad for the CIA in the paper and mailed her the ad.

* She wasn’t just any covert agent.  She worked in international undercover operations – first with diplomatic immunity, and then without – until taking a year off after having twins.  (during which time she suffered for months from Postpartum Depression)

* When she returned to work in 2001, just five months before 9/11, Plame was one of only two CIA Ops officers assigned to work in the Iraq branch of the Counterproliferation Division.  She was a WMD expert.

* Prior to being outed, she secretly served her country for almost 20 years — during which time the only people who knew she worked for the CIA were her mother, father, brother, and husband.  Imagine her shock (and the shock waves) when her name showed up in the newspaper.

Even with all the blacked-out sections (and there are ridiculously many) Plame easily guides you through the complexity of her secret life, from her first days in CIA training (fascinating) through her resignation after being “outed” as a covert officer by the Bush administration.  The calculated destruction of the lives of Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson — to teach them a lesson — shows the real inter-workings of Washington D.C.  Politics rules above all.  Even the law.

That more people — and by ‘people’ I mean our highest-ranking, elected, government officials — were not convicted of crimes over this blows my mind.