Thursday, December 22, 2016

Outgrowing our Pants

I must preface this post by telling you that I am an old radical from the 60s.  I marched, protested, was gassed, bailed out friends who were arrested, and more. I attended a hotbed college in the heart of Washington DC.  I had friends in the Weathermen.  I knew Black Panthers.  I was against the draft and the war in Vietnam.  I was for civil rights. I was a feminist in the Mad Men days.

We once fought about the peace sign.
Some called it a broken cross and
disrespectful to Christians.  
I will also tell you that after the 60s I became a wife and mother. I got a job.  I got a divorce. I was a single mother raising two daughters.  I belonged to churches, baked cookies, and attended school plays. In short, I lived a more or less regular life. I was still a feminist.

Now, I am old. I spent my professional career observing and writing about things.  I cannot seem to stop.  So, this is what I observe now.

The election of trump (lower case intentional) is destined to bring out the best and the worst in us.  I’m not talking here about how he has lined his cabinet with white nationalists (aka racists) or how the repugs in Congress seem blind to the danger this man poses to our country.  No.  I am talking about the women who oppose all this.

A couple weeks before the election, a friend added me to Pantsuit Nation, a FaceBook group started to encourage women to show solidarity on election day by wearing pantsuits – a nod to our candidate. What fun! I thought.  After the election results, I was pleased to see this group morph quickly into one that mobilized to preserve women’s rights.  Still, I knew what was coming.

And here it is.  FaceBook is exploding with rival factions within the many groups that are either subgroups of Pantsuit Nation or splinter groups.  I knew this would happen.  It always does.  It’s not just with groups of women, it is with all groups.  It is the very reason that up until the election I have resisted joining any group.  I gave up church long ago (those split, too, BTW).  I don’t even do book clubs.  Essentially, I hate the whole group thing.  I am at heart an individualist, independent to my core.  I struggled as a student and as a parent of students to conform to the educational groups.  I was lousy at the whole religion thing.  Even my radical college split because some people were judged not radical enough.
I say all this to share my perspective.  This shit happens. It almost makes no difference if it is about a book deal or difference in philosophy. If it is not treason or a felony, I'm too old to waste my limited energy swatting at flies while I battle the dragon. Even that statement is inflammatory, I know. Do what you will with it. I saw this coming and joined anyway.  And this time, I’m staying.  I belong to a number of these groups.  I will never agree with all of them, especially not all the time.  But I will work my ass off and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone, man or woman, black or white, willing to go up against the rising tide of American fascism.  There will be pettiness.  There will be backbiting.  There will be self-serving and breast-beating.

I don’t care. There.  I said it.  You can look down your well-powdered, middleclass, white nose at my poverty and ask why I didn’t save more.  You can point your black chin at me and accuse me of enjoying my white privilege. You can pray for me or condemn me to hell for being an atheist. I don’t care. I am not out to change anyone or seek anyone’s approval.  I am here simply to work. You don’t have to agree with me at every point and I don’t have to share your exact viewpoint.  But we do have to work together, or if not together, at least against our common enemy, instead of against each other. 

The fact is, I like the energy and passion I see. I haven’t seen this for decades. Once I sat in smoky rooms debating such philosophy and strategy. Passion is bound to spill over into hurt and anger a bit.  Be passionate!  If you are sick of people not talking frankly about race, by all means, talk about race. Force the issue.  If you see someone taking advantage of our movement, speak up.  Just please, keep your focus on the reason we are here.  We stand to lose our reproductive rights, our voting rights, our civil rights. These are the very rights for which we fought in the 50s and 60s and 70s.  We want to block alignment with those behind the atrocities in Aleppo and at Standing Rock.  We want to be on the right side of history and not lose sight of the goal while working out the details.

This isn’t about pantsuits, or safety pins, or which group is pure.
 This is about our lives, our children’s and grandchildren’s lives.  This is about the preservation of our country.  This is about moving forward, not back.  So, bicker all you like. I'm no one's apologist and I’m not going anywhere.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Case for the Electoral College Stopping Trump

United States Constitution: Article 2, Section 1:
“Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of senators and representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress: but no senator or representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.”
In their wisdom, our Founding Fathers eschewed a full democracy for a democratic republic form of government.  In their minds, the tyranny of the majority was as much a danger to our young country as was a monarchy.  Also in their minds was the fear that slaves might impact the vote. So, they devised the Electoral College, a system by which a few men from each state could reflect – or override – the popular vote, state by state. The system intentionally gave more power to some areas of the country. In the country’s entire history, it has never once used its power to set aside the selection of a candidate for president. 

These are the reasons it should do so now.

The Electoral College is not a rubber stamp.  It was given its own deliberative and voting powers. The reason newscasters can predict the outcome of an election within hours of the polls closing is simple calculations, based on the needed 270 votes and where they are located. It must be kept in mind that the Electoral College has not yet cast their votes. There is a provision in the Constitution that allows for what is called “a faithless elector.”  Electors may, by law, vote against the selection their state has made. Obviously, this was not encouraged, nor expected, but it was precisely allowed. 

The current President-elect is a uniquely unqualified candidate.  Not only does he not have the experience to govern, he does not have the temperament to deal effectively with either world leaders or his own people.  Even his self-proclaimed business acumen is suspect due to his lack of transparency and multiple bankruptcies.  His cabinet appointments have shown either his inability to run the government or his desire to dismantle it.  His petulant attitude toward criticism of any sort makes him a danger to those he would rule.  At best, he is a thin-skinned, inept authoritarian who will use the office for his personal benefit.  At worse, he is a puppet and will do irreparable harm to the country.

The President-elect’s ties to Russia are chilling.  There is no nuance, no diplomacy in his approach to this long-time adversary of the United States.  Instead, he has appointed a Secretary of State who is so close to the Kremlin that he has received a medal from Putin’s own hand.  Worse, US intelligence agencies have found actual proof that Russia actively interfered with the election, likely on Trump’s behalf.  As Trump has not released his tax returns, there is no way to see connections there, but this lack of transparency itself is also worrisome. Clearly what we see is not all we are getting.

Even setting Russia aside, the President-elect’s approach to foreign policy is clumsy, juvenile, and potential damaging, not just to the US, but to the world. His reluctance to sit still long enough for a daily intelligence briefing is troubling but his attitude that he does not need them because he is so “smart” is the kind of hubris that causes war.  Challenging foreign powers on Twitter is even more inappropriate than the social media bullying for which he is so well known.  This is not a man who should be anywhere near the nuclear codes.

Finally, there is the popular vote.  Yes, other Presidents have taken office not having won the popular vote.  However, never has one lost the popular vote so spectacularly as has Trump.  With a divide of nearly three million votes, it is clear that the American people do not want this man as President.  Whether it is his hubris, his sexism, his racism, his petulance, or his lack of qualifications, the people have spoken. His election so far has been based on economic anger and the lies he told to inflame it. That he will do nothing to alleviate the pain of those who voted for him, and will, in fact, increase economic hardship by enabling the dismantling of health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, and more, makes Trump a fraud. 

The Electoral College was made for exactly this situation.  We have an assumed President-elect whose election was influenced by an enemy nation, who failed by millions of votes to win the hearts and minds of the American people, yet who claims a mandate; who has shown an unwillingness to do the actual work of the Presidency, and in fact, intends to maintain both his business and television empires concurrent with his term; who has acted inappropriately not only personally, but also on the foreign stage before even having the authority to do so; and who has shown either ignorance of, or clear disdain for our Constitution.

If the Electoral College does not use its legal power to keep this man from the highest office, it has abdicated its responsibilities and shown itself to be ineffective and archaic.  If, however, it rises to the occasion, it will cement its place in our government and prove the wisdom of its founders.  Such action will, of course, require courage, but it will also go down in history as a peaceful act that may well save the most powerful nation the world has ever seen from its own demise. 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

It’s been a month.  The shock of the election has worn off.  The terrible reality is sinking in.

We have elected a man who does not know what he is doing.  He, in turn, has appointed ghastly advisors and cabinet members: unabashed racists, rabid war mongers, unqualified cronies.  In his arrogance, he has refused daily security briefings.  His conflicts of interest have already begun to undermine our national stability and his bull-in-a-China-shop efforts at foreign policy may well break the world.

His cries that the election was rigged – despite his selection –  has not stopped him from trying to prevent a recount in crucial states.  There is evidence that Russia did, in fact, intervene in the election process - as he requested.  He is petulant, whiny, and without grace.

Perhaps the most frightening prospect of his presidency is the fate of truth.  His surrogates have declared it irrelevant, and he certainly has ignored it, preferring an expeditious lie over facts at every turn.

Truth matters.  Truth does not have a liberal bias, as claimed by the righteous right.  It has no bias at all.  It is simply the truth. That the Constitution is the law of the land is the truth.  That it clearly states a separation of church and state is the truth.  That it explicitly provides for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press is simply fact. That none of this matters to the incoming administration is also fact.
Why it matters not to those who voted for him is beyond comprehension.  Don’t talk to me about the economically disenchanted middle-class angry white voter.  I lost my job in the Bush Recession and never recovered. I lost my salary, my healthcare, my savings, and my retirement, but I did not lose my mind!  Vague promises that invite personal interpretation will never make America great.  A consistent policy, based on our laws and rooted in the truth, is what has made America great. 

If we can get rid of this mistake we can, indeed, be great again.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Why I'm with HER

I swore this year I would not post heavily on political matters.  My friends know my politics and I’m not likely to sway anyone of a different mind.  So why state my opinion?  There is one important reason: I want to go on record as standing for what I believe.  So, feel free to ignore this post if you are apolitical. Also, be aware that I am not going to engage with any who feel the need to comment on this.  I am simply stating my position on my own page and blog. 

I am old enough to have been denied equal access to educational coursework in a public high school due to my gender. That same high school had a whole building for boys’ sports and lockers while the girls had the basement.  I am old enough to have been let go from a desk job because I was pregnant.  I once worked in an office at a newspaper that had only a men’s room because the editor did not believe women should be reporters. I had one friend who had a back-alley abortion. I don’t take women’s rights for granted.  My mother’s generation fought and bled for them and my generation has had to fight to keep them.  I am old enough to know we could lose these hard-won rights. As a mother to two women and as a grandmother to two more, I always keep this in mind while voting.
That alone would lead me to vote for Hillary and for blue down-ticket.  But there is more.

I have never bought the narrative that Hillary Clinton is dishonest, a liar, or some master manipulator.  I have followed her career closely and she has been vilified at every turn for daring to be a strong woman in a man’s world.  When she was first lady and worked for healthcare reform, she secured her fate as a hated feminist. I remember pundits saying she was trying to break the traditional role of first lady and she should go read to children at a hospital or something similar. But, she managed to get healthcare through for children.  She was placed in a losing position as the wife of a cheater.  Had she left him, she would have “broken her marriage vows” and “been unforgiving.”  As it was, she stayed and has suffered, not for her own misdeeds, but for her husband’s!

Is she flawless?  Of course not.  No one is. She has played the political game better than most.  What has caught her up has not been actual misdeeds, but her assumption that she would be given the same leeway as her male counterparts.  In her long and public career, she has put up with innuendos and investigations that have never led to an indictment, much less a conviction.  Despite this, the men (mostly) doing these investigations have felt free to not only censure her, pontificate on small points, and pass their own personal judgments, but have lied and in at least one, case fabricated so-called evidence against her. Her patience in the face of this will go down in history.

She is not the lesser of two evils.  I reject that completely.  She is competent.  She is experienced.  She is a leader by temperament.  Yes, she is a politician.  So is Chris Christy, Newt Gingrich, and dozens of others much more soiled by their involvement in politics than she.  Yet somehow they come back like bad pennies after proven misdeeds while she is expected to dissolve due to innuendo.   Nope.  It’s a level playing field.  If there’s dirt on it let’s do something about that instead of imputing dirt onto a relatively clean candidate just so she doesn’t outshine the boys.

Also, I compare her to her rival.  As a female, I am offended by Trump’s words about females.  As a human, I am offended by his words about minorities and the disabled.  As a supporter of veterans, I am aghast at his behavior toward veterans and the Gold Star family he mocked.  As someone who follows politics and reads the fact-checkers, I am appalled at his daily lies; even when confronted with taped proof of what he has said his denials are epic.  His immoderate comments on nuclear weapon use is chilling.  His supporters include North Korea and the KKK.  A person is known by the company he does not disavow.

I believe that he is so unprepared for the presidency that were he to be elected, he would have to be controlled by others.  This, too, is chilling.

If Hillary –  or any woman – had the personal past that Trump owns with boastful bravado, she would be vilified and ridiculed, not embraced by the religious as he is.  That also extends to the spouses.  Hillary has not said a single word against Trump’s wife for her nude modeling or her uncertain work status as a new immigrant, but Trump has made much political hay from Bill’s past misdeeds and even from the misdeeds of the spouse of one of her aides. 

There’s also policy.  I believe in separation of church and state.  I believe in equal rights for all.  I believe in science and climate change.  I want my granddaughters to never worry about their reproductive choices being stripped from them by politicians.  I want to ratify the ERA.  I want sensible gun legislation and reasonable immigration reform.  I want economic reform that does not try to balance the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it.  I don’t want to make America great again; I want to make it greater than it is today. 

Hillary is a well-qualified candidate and Trump is not.  So, I’m with HER and I’m proud of it. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Considering freedom of religion

We talk a lot about freedom.  How well we actually understand the concept is unclear.  No where is this more apparent than with freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in our Constitution, in Amendment 1, where it clearly states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." (The rest of the amendment deals with other freedoms.) It is the first freedom mentioned in what we know as The Bill of Rights.  These go back to 1791 and were clearly important to the framers.  So, I think most people would agree that this freedom is legitimate in an historical sense.

But when discussing any freedom there appears to be some disagreement about what is meant.  In future posts, I will deal with each in turn, but here I would like to focus solely on "freedom of religion" as indicated in Amendment 1.

You may have noticed that the phrase, "freedom of religion" does not itself appear in the Constitution.  That is merely how we commonly refer to it.  The Constitution says plainly that Congress cannot establish a state religion or prohibit the expression of religion.  That effectively removes our law-making body from the subject.

Yet ... here we are in 2016 arguing over religion in schools, in the workplace, in medical centers.

Growing numbers of Americans reject all religion outright. Others practice various religions, many of which have conflicting tenets. Many are some version of Protestant Christianity and Catholics also have large numbers in the US.  Some, however, practice non-Christian religions, from standard Judaism to arcane Druidism, Wiccan, and many others.

So, if we are to set aside the Constitution and establish religion as a guiding force for our citizens, which one would be chosen? And how would we choose it?

The answer, of course, is that we cannot do this.  Religion, whether it is prayer in schools, prohibition of medical procedures in hospitals, or tests for religiosity in order to hold public office are all unconstitutional.  That is the very essence of "freedom of religion."

Some have parsed that phrase saying the Constitution meant that we have no freedom "from" religion, only of which one we may choose.  That shows both ignorance of the Constitution itself and of prepositions.  For "of" means precisely "direction or distance from," and expresses the relationship between "freedom" and "religion."

Freedom of religion as expressed in our Constitution means that the government shall take a hands-off approach to religion in all ways. It will not endorse or establish one religion over the other nor will it prohibit any citizen from practicing any religion.

So where does that leave our heavily Republican, religious right? It leaves them free to practice whatever religion they choose, but they cannot, by law, force their beliefs on others nor prohibit conflicting practices.

Yes, this is controversial but it should not be because the Constitution says in plain English that religion is not a function of law.  You cannot get around this.  If one is opposed to abortion or same-sex marriage on the basis of religion, no one can force them to have an abortion or marry someone of the same gender. However, they cannot deny those rights to others who do not share their religious beliefs.  That is how freedom works.

Piety is not a value in our common law.  In every country where it is, it results in not just denying others' the freedom to worship, or not, as they choose, but also to eventual oppression and civil war.

Pray all you like.  Have as many children as you choose.  Wear whatever makes you happy.  But leave the rest of us alone!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Winds of Change

There have been times in my life, especially in recent years, when I have felt the beginnings of the winds of change at my back.  This is a subtle feeling, rather like seeing something in your peripheral vision, only to turn and not be able to see it.  Such has happened again recently.

I have homeschooled one of my granddaughters and she has done well, so well that this year she is working an above-grade curriculum. Our first day was yesterday and I was dismayed as I reviewed, at the gaps in knowledge she exhibited.  She can write better than most adults I know.  She can format her paragraphs with good topic sentences, good details, good conclusions.  I have taught her to think on paper.  That is what I value.

Yet yesterday, when she could not reliably identify the parts of speech (!) or the sentence subject/predicate, I was dumbfounded and not a little angry.  How can I have schooled this bright child for years, turning her into a skilled writer, and managed to miss such fundamentals?  She felt so bad she cried.

I made my lovely granddaughter cry.

Sigh.  And there is also the matter of my finances.  June wiped me out: a car repair, a broken TV, lost eye glasses, a waterheater replacement, and computer replacement.  Then in July the IRS billed me an additional $400 for last year's taxes.  All of which has left me without savings and facing property taxes.  Argh.

Then there is my book.  Only one of the four professionals to whom I have given it for review has gotten back to me.  Her review was encouraging but it is not enough.  Now I must noodle the others all the while I continue to research and write and also begin to seek a publisher.  And this is work that does not pay me a cent.

Toss in my inability to make pottery and my inability to pay for the surgery I need in order to get back to it, and I am left scratching my head.  Should I liqudate my pottery studio?  I have thousands of dollars in equipment and materials.  Should I leave my large home? Would I even be able to sell it?  And what then?  Move into some rental? How would that help?

Yes, it's getty breezy here.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Catching up with an old friend

Yesterday I had lunch with an old friend.  Maybe friend is too deep a word to describe our limited relationship, but we certainly are of like-mind on many things in life. So we met at a wonderful little natural food cafe and discussed our lives in some depth.

What struck me most about this was how fortunate I felt.  This lovely lady has been abandoned by her entire family and treated poorly.  It is clear that their recent attempts to contact her - after decades of neglect - were just to find out if she is still alive (she's a bit older than I) and maybe ingratiate themselves into her will.  I was horrified.

By contrast, I scrimped and saved to attend a recent conference and gave my credit card a workout paying for the airfare and hotel. When I returned home, I found out that my daughter had picked up my hotel tab! I have little to leave my family but they are active and supportive in my life.

I enjoyed my lunch with my old friend and hope we can get together more often.  Life is just too short for pettiness and acrimony.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Contentment examined

I have never been accused of being emotionally tone-deaf.  I know the full range of human emotion simply from living a full life. I know grief from the deaths of family and friends, some harder to bear than others.  I know joy and love from children, grandchildren and even my silly pets.  I have been enormously satisfied with some of my work and gratified that so much of what I set out to do in life - raising great kids, mastering pottery, writing - I have done. However, it is contentment I find most pleasing.

To be content is more than just being satisfied with things as they are.  To be sure, a certain lack of striving is key to it, but contentment does not rule out the continuing search for excellence, it just makes it more natural.  Contentment comes with a reassurance that one is on the right path, that one can meet whatever may come with equanimity, and that one is simply enough.

I think contentment, with the exception of infancy, is the province of later life.  Youth is too rushed, too worried, too full of ambition. When one is content, one might trade one's body for that of the younger self, but never the mind.  The lessons learned are too valuable, more precious than knees that work painlessly or unlined skin.

Contentment is full of acceptance - of those things missed as well as achieved.  It can acknowledge what might have been and see potential that might have been better used but rests easy in what is. It understands that the past are future are only versions of today.

There are those who have more than I, more money, more family, more friends, more success.  There are many who have less. Contentment has taught me to live without comparison.  For how does one compare the quality of the love one shares with that of another?  Contentment teaches comfort in one's own skin to such as extent that one can reside there without envy, bitterness, or fear.

Today I am content.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The way life leads

Every morning I go into my office and begin writing.  I work on my book about rare genetic disorders and on my blog about the same topic.  I find myself promoting others' work, their research, their endeavors, their papers.  I do this because life has led me down this strange path, away from commercially profitable writing and the pottery I love.

Lately my mind has wandered.  Somewhere amid the ATP energy production and substrate selection and all the different, horrible disorders, my mind is seeking clay.  My fingers can almost feel the moist, smooth, surface give as I turn it on the wheel in my mind.  I toy with the idea of hauling out a bag of clay and doing something, anything with it to scratch this itch.

But I don't.

There is the issue of my arm, which screams in pain just watching someone throw, and the pressing need to finish this book so I can move on.  What to, I have stopped trying to plan.  For plans are for fools.

So everyday, I snap on my office light, pull out my chair, and write.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

What a long, strange trip it's been!

 I recently ordered refills for a little gizmo that clamps paper instead of stapling it.  I got it while working for FEMA in Mississippi in the wake of Katrina.  With it, I clamped copies of selected passages from a book I am writing on a class of rare genetic disorders. As I did so, I pondered the strange tangents my life has taken.

I have been, in turns, a wife and mother, a hippie, a potter, a reporter and editor, a Kelly Girl, an activist, a science writer, a divorcee, a grandmother, a homeschooler, a substitute teacher, a photographer, a homeowner, a hitchhiker, a cat lady and a dog owner, a carpooler, a grantwriter, a disaster worker, an ad writer, a novelist, a swimmer, a caretaker, a friend, unemployed, and now, a writer about genetics of all things!

At 20, one does not think one's life will take such diverse paths, and I know, for many, the road is rather straight.  For me, though, my paths have taken me to live in tiny cabins in the woods and in big city apartments, and to work among the poor, and to interview the rich in their fine environs - all the while struggling to raise two daughters, keep my sanity, pay my bills and be creative.  Yet somehow, here I am: in my own modest home with a few sheckles in my pocket and looking forward to a trip that is both business and pleasure.

I have been something of a generalist all my life.  I have made it my work to observe people.  I know what drives them.  I know how they think and what they want.  I know what pains them.  Yet here I am writing on a topic so specialized most people have never heard of it.  Somehow it seems fitting.

What a long, strange trip it's been!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Think differently about guns

I’m tired of the same old, same old.  I’m tired of second graders being killed in their classroom and dancing young people killed in clubs.  I’m tired of angry guys killing their partners. I’m sick to death of strutting fools intimidating people with guns in stores and on the street. And above all, I’m sick of ineffective discussion and political inaction.

It’s time to think differently.  Our right to bear arms is protected by the second amendment.  Fine.  I’ve lived with guns.  My father had a side arm; my husband had a handgun, my significant other has a couple of guns.  None of them walked around with them strapped on in plain view. None felt the need for an automatic or a semi-automatic gun. No one wants to eliminate the second amendment.  No one wants to go around collecting guns.

It is time to amend the second amendment for a new generation of Americans. We are no longer a few colonies without a strong national defense system.  In fact, we spend more than 50 percent of our national wealth on our military forces. We no longer have need of militias, well-trained or not.  If anything, our National Guard, Army Reserves, and the rest of our armed forces reserve corps take the place of citizen armies. That is not to say there is no place for an armed civilian.

The second amendment can still guarantee the right for citizens to own guns.  Not because we need to protect our towns from marauding invading foreign armies.  Not because we may need to rise up against our own government (that was never the intent and should not be now) but because we are a nation of farmers, sportsmen, mountain-dwellers, and urbanites, all of whom may want or need a gun for perfectly legal purposes.

No one wants your guns! 

What many of us do want is an amendment that reflects the reality of life in modern day America.  There are no militias.  We have weapons of mass destruction, not muskets.  We want to feel safe in our public places.  We want our children to be safe in their schools.  We want to dance and love and shop in peace. 

In the same way we want to keep alcohol away from children and cars away from drunk drivers, we want to make sure that gun purchases are fully vetted.  And gun ownership must come with responsibilities, such as insurance.  Gun owners should be licensed, insured, and subject to laws regarding the use of whatever weapon they choose to own.  And we should not be selling weapons that are made for warfare. No one has need of grenades, canons, rocket launchers or automatic weapons. 

Let there be due process but let there also be common sense.  If one has a violent history, or has criminal ties, severe mental illness, or has risen to the attention of national security, that person should be either entirely restricted from gun ownership, or be required to pass a higher level of competence to receive a license and insurance.  We take away the driving privileges of repeat offenders.  We should do the same with gun ownership.  It may be a right, but we can forfeit our rights with our behavior, as do those who lose their right to vote with felonies.

Our second amendment should continue to allow us the right to bear arms but temper that, not according to colonial militias, but according to real-time needs and modern sensibilities.  Specious arguments such as “It’s unenforceable because people will still get guns” are to be ignored.  We regulate all kinds of behavior that despite laws is still practiced.  We don’t make murder legal because we cannot stop all murders.  We don’t say shoplifting is fine because people will still shoplift.  No. We make common sense laws and enforce them.  We penalize those who break them.  We are Americans.  We can do this.  

Friday, March 18, 2016


Unlike family, friends are voluntary, found along the path of life, identified though commonalities one might not even know one has.  Some friendship are rooted to a time of life or a job or some other transient period, known from the first as temporary.  Other friendships crash and burn or simply wear out.  Then there are those that are family, minus the genetics.

Mary Lou was such a friend to me.  We met at our jobs at a newspaper and found ourselves scheduling errands at the same time simply to continue our seemingly endless conversation.  She had two boys she was raising; I had two girls.  We ate breakfast biscuits together, shopped sales together, finally taking days at the beach together, burning our noses and drinking in the sun and sand.

My friend would shake both her hands, stopping mid-sentence, declaring  "Oh, oh, quantum leap!" and take our conversation in a new direction, only to return later to the thread with a bemused, "Now where were we?"

She doodled marvelous drawings, creating custom holiday greetings I wish now I had kept.  She understood me without explanation and loved me through some of my darkest days.  When she and her husband retired and moved to another state to live in the mountains, I saw her off.  I pulled up to the curb at her house and as her son and husband loaded a truck, she ran out to me with an old copper kettle she kept on her stove to moisten the winter air.  "Here," she said.  "For you."  We hugged and promised to visit.

Within weeks she was dead.  She had fallen down the steps of her new home.

Today I saw another friend off to yet another state.  We met more than 10 years ago in a small town in South Carolina at a pottery class.  Recognizing in each other that indefinable character that somehow creates friendship, we were delighted to discover we had grown up within a few miles of each other, both the daughters of eastern European widowed mothers. To our amazement we discovered we had been taken to some of the same performances at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in Manhattan. We shared memories of experiences lived separately but remembered together.

As my friend embarked on her adventure I wished her well and told her to travel carefully.  We will share lunches via Facetime and maintain our friendship, but I will miss her because I know that friendship is indeed rare and irreplaceable.  We met by chance and became the sisters neither of us had.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The stuff of life: Politics

In the interest of full disclosure, I stipulate upfront that I have been a Democrat since the difference between the two parties was explained to me when I was about 10.  I will further stipulate that I may be best described as a bleeding heart liberal.  With that out of the way, I feel I can present a few political observations. This blog is, after all, about the stuff of life and politics affects our “stuff” in ways we are not always even cognizant of. 

In this age of social media, I do not know a single person – myself included – who has not lost a friendship over politics.  It also affects families and can strain already emotionally fraught relationships to the breaking point.  Politics invade our bedrooms as well as our laws.  It sits at our dinner tables like an unwelcome guest.  It can take our children from us either with alienation or with war.  Politics is serious stuff.   Some try to opt out by refusing to discuss it or even become educated on the issues, but no one can escape its ramifications.

Justice Scalia died this weekend leaving a vacancy on the high court and a convoluted path forward.  The way such a vacancy on the Supreme Court is supposed to be filled is by the sitting President nominating a jurist and the Senate confirming or blocking the nomination.  Within hours of Scalia’s death, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell stated that the Senate would not hold hearings on anyone President Obama nominates because he wants to wait almost a full year until after the election when a new President will be named and inaugurated in January of 2017.  The current slate of Republican candidates, who could agree on nothing else during their debate that evening, agreed with McConnell.  

In contrast, President Obama praised Scalia during comments he made and said he would fulfill his constitutional duty to nominate someone to fill the empty slot on the bench. His likeliest nominees are all moderates. Most pundits believe it is unlikely that his nominee will be confirmed. This is where politics gets interesting.

If no one is confirmed, the high court is split and any 4-4 tie results in the lower court’s latest ruling remaining in force.  This will benefit the left and the right, but not equally.  More left-leaning rulings are up for review.  So refusing to confirm a moderate candidate might be counterproductive for the right.

Another scenario is for Obama to read McConnell’s statement as pure obstruction and go around him with a recess appointment.  This would likely work and Obama has used his executive powers more in recent months.  He could appoint a wild progressive to the court this way, especially if he waits a bit so that the Senate would be unable to challenge his appointment.  This is, I think, unlikely, though tempting.

Of course, the Senate can do exactly what they have threatened to do, not hold hearings on any proposed jurist.  That’s a risk.  People already view this Congress as the least productive ever.  Also, there is no guarantee a Republican will win the presidential contest.  Should either Sanders or Clinton win, a liberal nomination would be assured and in the unlikely event that the Senate remains red, they would be forced to finally hold hearings and rapidly fill the vacant post, even if with a liberal.

Then there’s the irony inherent in the Republican proposition that since Scalia was a purist, or textural in his interpretation of the Constitution, any replacement should be likewise.  A pure reading of the part of the Constitution that spells out how Supreme Court vacancies are to be filled flies directly in the face of what they have said they would do.  There is no mention of any continuing legacy of a deceased jurist, only that the sitting President nominates and the Senate confirms. There is no language that can be construed to make any exception for an election year.  So in defense of the most purist of interpretations, the Republicans are willing to impute meanings not written in the Constitution they say they are defending.


No matter what the Republicans do, they will likely cause harm to themselves, but they are determined to thwart Obama at every possible turn, regardless of the cost.  I think most Americans find that offensive.  We need a government that does not grind to a halt when one side or the other does not get its way.  We need a full court.  We need a passed budget.  We need to pay our debts.  We need to respect each other’s differences and beliefs.  That should be the stuff of politics.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


I've been thinking a lot about vocabulary lately.  For one thing, I homeschool my granddaughter in language arts.  She's just in the fourth grade and she has a large vocabulary already so I decided to give her some vocabulary words from the S.A.T.  And then there's my own vocabulary that has grown by leaps and bounds due to my study of genetics.  It dawned on me that one learns nearly everything through words.

Not being a geneticist or even a scientist, reading advanced medical texts and academic papers left me feeling like I was missing more than I was understanding.  So I made a concerted effort to look up every word I did not know, as I came upon it.  I used my cell phone and a pocket medical dictionary to do so.  My knowledge of genetics grew as I began to understand the words in their context and it convinced me that my readers will need to at least have access to these words as well.

My second inter-library loan came through yesterday, a medical book exceeding 600 pages, and as I browsed the pertinent parts, the terms were familiar and my understanding of my topic grew.  I have always loved words.  I love their specificity, their ability to elicit feelings, their power, the funny way so many resemble their meanings.  I have a new respect for them now.  I can see how just learning the vocabulary of a new field of study opens it to understanding.

I need not be a scientist to write about genetics and my granddaughter need not be a high school student to call her grandfather cantankerous or know that bovine should elicit a moo.  Words are presents just waiting to be unwrapped.  I can't wait to learn more.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

This tenuous life

Sometimes we forget how tenuous life is.  Once born, our lives are at the mercy of pure chance: a semi on the highway, a tiny bacterium or virus, a misplaced step on a flight of stairs and it can all end.  Just getting born is a crap-shoot. We talk callously about poor women who "pop babies out" like it is easy, but it is not.

I had several miscarriages in my youth and  a still-born child.  It tore the heart out of me.  Now it's happening again, just not to me. There will be blood and tears and pain.  And again I am helpless.

I am writing a book on rare genetic disorders and I understand how this happens and that some children might be better off not being born.  My belief system does not include any kind of grand ringmaster directing the affairs of men.  I believe that we are all miracles - miracles of stardust and chance.  I think our souls are no more or less than the energy we contain and expend and that just as energy and matter cannot be destroyed or created, these souls are recycled and born to another or in another time.

Still, at this moment someone I love is losing part of her heart. There will be no child to hold, just pain and damage and doubt. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Discernment and nonprofits

In recent days, the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) has come under fire for the way it uses donations.  It has been pointed out that key personnel have high salaries and that the headquarters of the organization is quite nice.  What I don't think was as well covered was all the good done by this organization or how nonprofits really work. 

I have worked with a number of nonprofits in my career, including WWP, and all of them have done good work.  The problems arise when a nonprofit has to explain their budget line-items in a kind of vacuum to its supporters. There is a rule of thumb that says the "overhead" for a nonprofit should not be more than 15 percent of it's total operating budget.  Everything else should go toward direct services to the intended recipients. In the nonprofit world having money left at the end of the year is frowned upon. 

Look at what has to fit into overhead: the salaries of the executive director, his or her secretary or assistant, an operations manager, a bookkeeper, the development officer and any grant writers, and depending on the individual organization, there might be other, necessary, jobs that are not directly related to service for recipients. Then there is the cost of whatever facility is involved.  And the cost of any services that are contracted out, such as advertising for donations or an annual audit.  Even janitorial services cost money.

Then the nonprofit has to pay whoever provides the services to clients.  These are likely professional people such as social workers, psychologists, nurses, etc. Even volunteers represent a cost to an agency.  They must be trained, supervised, supplied with space and equipment and some come through programs, such as AmeriCorps, that charge a fee.

In the private sector, a business would be considered practically insolvent if it ended a year without some funds left in the bank.  As individuals we all know the value of having savings we can tap for emergencies, special needs, or upcoming costs.  Why should we expect nonprofits to simply trust that if their plumbing requires repairs or some other unbudgeted expense arises, someone will donate them? Having a little surplus at year's end for a nonprofit is not a bad thing.  It is a hedge against falling donations, recession, rising salaries due to competition, and emergency expenses.  

As an example, let's look at a modest nonprofit, one that raises $500,000 a year. Let's say it provides after-school care for at-risk kids.  The executive director has a PhD in child psychology and has never worked for less than $65,000 a year.  Her office assistant requires $30,000 and she doubles as the bookkeeper. A part time counselor needs another $20,000 and the agency pays two people each $10 an hour to help out with the kids after school.  So on an annual basis, the overhead salaries total $95,000 out of a $500,000 budget.  That's nearly 20 percent right there and no one is getting rich. And that doesn't even begin to touch the liability insurance the nonprofit must provide or any modifications necessary for handicapped children, or attorney fees or security costs to protect against angry parents who don't like the services.  Reasonable costs can count against a nonprofit.

People think nonprofits run on volunteer labor and they do not.  They need skilled executives to make excellent decisions about the money collected.  These executives need to make good hires.  They need to see that services are provided and they control the quality of the organization.  These people do not come cheap. Professionals of every stripe expect to be paid according to the market for their profession.  Lots of small nonprofits start with a well-meaning person and an idea.  Most of them fail because running a nonprofit is no different than running a business. Someone has to pay the light bill; someone has to sweep the floors; someone has to fix the driveway.

The larger a nonprofit becomes, the more important it is to get and keep excellent people in key positions.  People who work at nonprofits are no different from those who work at a tire factory or in advertising, or at a security firm.  They all have to pay mortgages, buy insurances, save for retirement.  They may work for a nonprofit out of passion for the cause, but their families still have needs.  If we expect a well-run nonprofit, we must expect to pay competitive salaries to all who work there.

Granted, some nonprofits are simply scams.  These donate just a few cents on the dollar to those who are supposed to receive assistance.  But we should not lump successful nonprofits such as WWP in with them simply because their costs are high or because they pay their people market rates or because they have a positive balance at year's end. Most people in that organization are veterans themselves.  WWP has helped countless veterans overcome war injuries and find their way back to their families and communities.  They have helped the families of veterans.  They give out grants every year to other nonprofits that provide all kinds of services, all over the nation. 

WWP does a lot of good, not just on its own, but also with other organizations. One organization with which I work has received funding through WWP and due directly to that funding, more than 19,000 veterans have received homes, jobs, employment, counseling, healthcare, and other services.  That is no small thing and it is just one of the many efforts paid for by WWP. 

The nonprofit sector is not without its flaws, certainly, but let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Let us evaluate them as the businesses they are.  As businesses they have legitimate costs.  They cannot get office supplies for free and they cannot get excellent executives and directors for less than what the market offers.  They must pay for the services they render. 

It is far too easy to look at a handful of salaries or a nice building and think, that money should have gone somewhere else. Comparing nonprofits is also risky.  A multi-million dollar concern can't be compared to a mom-and-pop nonprofit where one or two people do everything for a few clients.  Let us develop discernment.  Let us ask ourselves, if I had those qualifications, how much would I expect to be paid? Let us be realistic.  Nonprofits must compete for our money against not only each other, but also against our own desire to keep every dollar we earn. 

When feeling charitable very few of us go under the bridges where we can find the homeless and start passing out tens and twenties.  We don't go up to a mother on the street as ask if her child has a defect and then give her $5.  We don't go into hospitals or research centers and stuff our money in their desk drawers. We rely on nonprofits to represent us to our concerns. We rely on nonprofits to find those who need help, to sort out any freeloaders, to provide efficient, useful help. Let us do our homework, certainly, but let us keep in mind the totality of the business of nonprofits. 

Rather than asking if a nonprofit is spending more than an arbitrary 85 percent on its clients, ask, what is being done for those it serves?  How does it reach that population?  How effective is it? What opposition does it have?  Do its values line up with my own? Who supports it?  These questions will give a far better evaluation of a nonprofit than simply looking at the salary of its top executives. 

I support WWP because they help a lot of veterans in meaningful ways.  They are always looking for ways to be better, to help more, and to be more efficient. They do pay their executives well.  I have no problem with that as long as they keep providing significant services to those they help.  I hope the recent bad press causes all of us to look carefully, not only at the nonprofits we support, but also at what we expect of all our nonprofits.  We should develop reasonable guidelines for running and evaluating a nonprofit.  It costs a lot to help people. Nonprofits are businesses, businesses with tenuous incomes, difficult clients, and many responsibilities. It is hard work. It is not done for free.
That's just the truth. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Take a hammer to it!

As a pottery student, my work was criticized, along with all my fellow students, on a regular basis.  The comments would range from, "I love the glaze combination!" to "That handle is weak."  Nothing personal was ever meant, or taken, during such criticism.  Exposing one's work to critical thought is supposed to teach, not tear down.

Writers are more delicate creatures, it would seem.  Though many in my various writers' groups post their work frequently, some are so defensive as to repel critical thought.  They question the critic's qualifications and the criticism's validity. It is like watching a mother protecting her child.

In large groups it is not unusual to find someone who enjoys being negative about others' work just for the sake of doing so.  A perceptive writer can tell the difference between an honest criticism and a simple tear-down.  One appreciates the former and walks away from the latter without comment.  Not all criticism is bad; not all require discussion.  Take what you need and leave the rest.

I learned that in crafting my clay vessels many things could go wrong:  handles could warp in the fire; glazes could craze or crawl; they could just turn out ugly.  When this happens I take a hammer to them, not wanting them to continue to exist in such a flawed state as a testament to me, its maker. I take the same approach to my writing.

Tell me - please - where my errors are.  I want to know if I have misspelled something, shifted my tense, lost track of who is speaking.  I want to fix it.  I want to know if my words sing or clang.  I want to know if my reader understands the story, the message behind it, or if I've gotten off track.  I want to know if I should make massive revisions, tweak it, or take a hammer to it!  If you just want to tell me my character should be wearing blue, save it.  If you are grasping at straws and just spewing negativity for the sake of sounding critical, I will understand and roundly ignore you.

We writers need criticism the way plants need sun and water.  It is a good thing.  Welcome it, use it, or if need be, ignore it!


Saturday, January 23, 2016


Someone in my writer's group asked for my opinion of his article on happiness.  It got me thinking about the subject and I thought I'd put my thoughts here.

Happiness, like love, is hard to define, but we know it when we feel it. Sometimes happiness feels like relief, for example when you receive a little windfall just in time to avoid some small financial problem.  Or, it may feel like fun when you play with your child and peek into her world.  Exhilaration may make us happy, if only for the time it takes to realize that it is gone as quickly as it came.

My view of happiness is two fold:  We must be content and not get overwhelmed.

Contentment has to do with having enough.  We each have to define what enough is for ourselves. And - this is important - we have to know we have enough.  I think it is the striving, the competition, the constant comparison to others that make us unhappy.  I think certain things are important to happiness, but perhaps not essential:  food, health, connectedness.  Obviously, if our lack of food or health is too great, we die.  But food and health are not in themselves, happiness.  We must have enough.  Connection to others, even to an animal companion, is also important.  I think it possible to have only past connections and still be happy, if those connections were enough.

So what is enough?  For me, enough is paying my bills, having satisfying work, being competent, being needed and knowing I can fulfill my responsibilities.  It means having only manageable pain. It means accepting my limits even while I reach beyond them.  My enough includes both people and animals I love and who love me back, though often they are aggravating or not actively engaged in making me happy.

The second part is the dicey part.  It is so easy to become overwhelmed.  At times it seems life beats us down.  The car breaks down, the boss is unhappy, the child is sick, a friend dies, responsibilities pile up, we are unjustly accused - it all feels so out of our control.  The truth is, much of it is out of our control. Equally true, is that a good part of it has as much to do with our attitude as with circumstances.

Understanding that life is just as it is whether we like it, or can change it, or even if we can understand it, brings a kind of relief.  It is not up to me, or you, to change the nature of life.  It is what it is.  If we are fortunate, our children will outlive us and our parents will die before us. Our pets will die. We will have heartbreak and hardship.  We will also know love, adventure, friendship.  We will taste wonderful foods and see beautiful sights. We may create something. We may make a difference in someone's life.  We will die but we also will live.

The happiest people I have known are not those who are rich, though having enough to remove financial stress is helpful.  The happiest people are those who can roll with life's punches.  I knew one woman who was simply never happy.  Every blow life dealt her was new each morning. She hoarded them as surely as she hoarded the bins of shampoo, dry mixes, and other sundries she kept in her spare room. I knew another, a homeless woman, who laughed everyday at something, even her own situation.  She also cried.  She was not delusional, but she kept her grip on what was good in her life.

This is what happiness looks like for me:  I can sit in my home, warm under a blanket, while it is cold outside, full from a simple dinner I cooked myself, tired from meaningful work I did all day, knowing my family and friends are just a phone call away.  It is enough.  I will keep reaching for more, not because I need it but because the challenge exists and I will be satisfied with all I achieve.  When I feel overwhelmed I wait.  I know it will pass.  I breathe in contentment and breathe out strife. It is enough.

Friday, January 22, 2016

My Daughter's Day Off

My elder daughter has three children, one with special needs.  Since his birth, her life has been one of constant care, anxiety, and work.  The little boy, now 15 months, was born with the rarest of genetic disorders that a generation ago would have killed him within days.  Now, due to newborn screening and constant vigilance, this little kid has a chance of a very good life.  My daughter, however, has not slept a single night for two years, has eliminated dairy and egg from her diet because of his allergies, and has learned how to cook almost exclusively with coconut oil to accommodate his disorder.  So, I thought for Christmas I would give her what she most needs: time to herself.

I made her a little basket with gift cards and items to use while shopping or on her personal care.  Yesterday she took her "Day Off" and put me in charge for one day of her kids and her household. I drove the little girl to school and the older, homeschooled girl, to her PE session at the community center. An hour later, I picked her up and drove her home. My daughter handed me the baby and left -  not without some anxiety about taking a day for herself.

I homeschooled my older granddaughter while I chopped veggies for a Crockpot soup for dinner. Her brother woke early from his nap and I prepared his special foods.  His disorder affects the way his body digests certain fats and the only fat safe for him is coconut oil.  So I prepared his dry peanut butter with his special oil and made him his sandwich. I washed his fruit and cut it up for him. All the while I listened to my granddaughter recite her math problems. I cooked burritos for lunch using my daughter's raw tortilla shells.  I burned the first one. 

I read and re-read a single book to my grandson, took countless items from his curious little hands, and followed him around the house.  While he sat playing with some toys I was able to unload the dishwasher but not load it again.  I wiped down surfaces in the kitchen and picked up some of the fallen food from around the highchair.

When it was time to pick up the little girl from playschool, I bundled my grandson up against the cold, strapped him into his carseat and took off.  Following that, I spent about 40 minutes in the playground at the school and while the girls played, I followed after my grandson, he got into the sand, wanted repeated lifts to the slide and enjoyed swinging for a bit.

On the drive home I listened while the older girl whined and sulked about the behavior of a little boy half her age on the playground. Back at home it was time to do some serious chores and I set the girls to work folding laundry while I put a dark load in to run.  I changed the boy, set him up with some toys, and for five minutes got to load the dishwasher again. 

Finally, I got the baby back down for a nap and got each girl settled in separate rooms to watch their favorite shows.  I swept the kitchen, wiped the table, fixed the folded laundry the four-year-old had stuffed into the linen closet and seasoned the soup.  It was nearly four o'clock and I hadn't sat down all day.

My hat is off to all you moms who do this every day!  Whether you work a job or work at home, you are responsible for a lot that no one ever sees or thanks you for.  So, thank you!  I hope you get a day off soon.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Why do anything hard?

I've been thinking a lot lately about why we choose to do difficult things.  Some things we simply have to do.  For some people, getting up everyday for work is difficult.  Others may find themselves in life-or-death situations where the choice is clear.  However, many of us choose to do what is hard when it is not necessary.

Who has not seen a jogger out in shorts on a cold morning and thought, "Why is he doing that?" For that is surely a choice, one that most people, driving by in heated cars, would not make.  But for the jogger, there is no choice.  Like mountain climbers, joggers do it because "it is there."

Some hard choices are made out of love.  I once gave a kidney to a relative.  I don't choose surgery easily, but I felt the benefits to her outweighed the risks to me.  Following my divorce, years ago, I chose to stay in the town where my children grew up, though other parts of the country beckoned to me.  Again, I balanced their need for stability at a vulnerable time in their lives against my desire to start anew elsewhere.  Both things were hard. I regret neither.

Sometimes it is the challenge of the thing itself that drives us.  My significant other has endured numerous surgeries to continue as a competitive fencer and coach. At 73, he still teaches five nights a week.  Other choices are made out of duty.  People join the armed services out of duty.  Some people take care of elderly relatives more out of duty than love.  Still others choose a difficult task because it needs to be done and no one else is doing it.

I recently took on such a task. I decided to write a layman's guide to a class of rare genetic disorders. My goal is for it to be useful to both patients and their primary care doctors.  My research for this project keeps me humble.  For every time I think I understand my subject, I look up one last thing only to find myself scrambling down yet another complex rabbit hole of a tangent.  At times this is exhilarating, at other times it is discouraging. I often feel like Alice - sometimes 10 feet tall, other times, very small. It is the nature of the hard task.

No one is making me do this.  I am not being paid to do this.  I anticipate that I will find a publisher but I hold out no hope for monetary reward anywhere near commensurate with my efforts. I am doing this out of love for my grandson, who has such a disorder. I am doing it because, like the mountain, it is there.  Mostly, I am doing it because I think I am the best person to do it.

I am not an academic, though I am smart.  I am not a scientist, though I worked in the sciences for years in an auxiliary role. What I am is someone who has spent her career digesting complex subjects and making them accessible to the appropriate audiences.  I have written about the natural history of lily pads, about backroom political deals, about animal behaviors, about drug addiction, homelessness, veteran issues and more.  I am also someone who has heard the pleas of parents for more information, for explanations they can understand, for the right questions for them to ask.  I have the skills, the desire, and the time.  I do this by choice.