Thursday, August 26, 2010

Social Media Use Can Open Archaic Gov'ts, and Open Minds

Using social media tools (blogs, Facebook, Twitter) seems to be an act of rebellion, lately. 

People wasting time--but also activists with noble missions--are getting on the Internet and spreading the word about injustices. 

In Egypt in particular, this is happening--and the powers that be (judges, for example) are admitting they don't know squat about the Internet...and yet, they're trying to decide about rules and punishments for those daring to use social media to try to change the world for the better.

Where have I seen this happen before? (How about in my own life? See countless articles and blog postings written about me. Or don't bother; the point is that so many people don't get it...yet, so many other people, thankfully, do.)

This raises an obvious question: is suspicion of social media an old/young problem? Do older people just not understand how the world has already changed?

I don't think that's true. I know plenty of older people who are truly into technology and have worked hard to get up-to-speed and use all the handy new tools for human connection that we now have at our disposal. (There are also many people of all ages, though mostly older, who don't want to bother to learn anything new.)

As someone in the middle, I realize it's not too late for anyone to catch up and join in as the world is changing.

What are the benefits of social media? There are so many, but bottom line is that we can know, in real time, what is happening in far away and hidden parts of the world. 

Consider places where alarming demonstrations are happening, where violence is being perpetrated against innocent people who are daring to speak up and demand change. That's one very obvious benefit.

Other benefits include staying in touch and sharing ideas.

Negatives (as with anything, there are drawbacks) can be less face-to-face interaction, more misunderstandings (based on lack of tone in e-mails and all writing), and people who simply use social media to--anonymously--insult others.

I like how the "new rules" include the benefit of meeting people you'd never otherwise have a chance to know by getting online and spreading the word about whatever it is that you care about. The old rules--which still, sadly, infect much of social media as the  people who fear change try to hold it back--are "don't do anything with your own name online, because it could come back to bite you."

The world is changing thanks to our increased connections, and I can't wait for the day when almost everyone is online and has been writing about what is happening in their part of their world, in their own life. 

Only then, I think, will we start to better understand each other, and only then will we stop persecuting people for daring to speak the truth.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Internet Can Help Adoptees (Even Foreign Born) Find Family

If you are adopted, you know that--in many cases--there can be a searing emptiness that accompanies your status. Despite whatever sort of life you've ended up living, despite love for your (new) family, despite all the good you may have experienced, there may also be a hole in your heart.

This hole never gets filled in until you know something, know your original story.

People who are not adopted may have trouble fathoming just what a big deal this is, but believe me, if you've always felt as if you'd dropped from the sky and no one would ever tell you anything (or didn't know anything to tell you), you would not be pleased. 

You might be despondent. You could be outraged. You would fight for changing the system, and if you couldn't help yourself, you would at least work to help others. 

Side note: I did both, actually--and I continue to do it. Also, one of my novels, "Pretty Freaky," is about both international and domestic adoptees, and it deals with issues of Not Knowing, Search, and Reunion.

It is now the year 2010. I write those words as if this means anything much. To be an adoptee right now is not as difficult, in some cases, as it was when I was born, in 1971.

Some states in the U.S now have open records laws, allowing adoptees to see their files when they turn 18, to erase at least some of the mystery (finding birthparents, search and reunion is still a whole 'nother story). Many states do not, and many people who are NOT adopted are trying to keep adoptees forever in the dark.

Yet some nations, such as the UK, have blanket laws that allow all adoptees to know their origins. They are clearly more civilized than we are...

Thanks to a downright miracle and great help I got from fellow adoptees back in 1995--on the prehistoric Internet!--I found my birthparents. Many people born before my time have little, if any, hope of ever finding theirs.

This is ironic: I would think that a 50, 60 or 70+ year old adoptee is certainly "mature" enough to handle the truth. Wouldn't you? I would think that an octogenarian birthparent might be really pleased to finally know what happened to her or his relinquished child.

Secrets and lies only hurt people, I believe. Besides which, adoptees never had any say in what happened to them. They cannot be treated as perpetual children.

What I'd like to talk about now is the story of an international (Korean) adoptee. I read her case this morning, and I wish her the best in her search for her birthparents and the closure of the mystery that surrounds her young childhood.

Imagine if all you knew about yourself is that you'd be found stumbling down the street, barefoot, as a toddler. 

Kim Yung-Hee is estimated to have been born in the summer of 1971. (Think about that for a minute: she doesn't even know her birthday!

Was she abandoned? Lost? Did her parents mean to give her up? 

This lucky child was eventually adopted by an American family (in 1975), but she is now wracked by the mystery that surrounds her. 

Can she ever find out what happened, or meet her birthfamily?

Here's to hoping, and here's to the great international community, the amazing network of HOPE we have because of the internet. Thousands of people from around the world are trying to help her with her search right now.

Good luck to all searching adoptees. Let me know if I can help you. I mean that sincerely. I "found" despite the odds, despite a near-total lack of information. If I can do it, so can you.

(Police photo of Kim Yung-Hee published in The Korea Times.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

When in Doubt, Follow the Money...Deep Throat was Right

I have said before that every bad thing we deal with is tied up with money. 

  • Why are some people paid paltry wages and worked to death while their bosses get rich? In other words, why does the oldest story in the world keep happening? Hmmm. Because of money. 
  • Why does it cost so much to go to the doctor (and it's not what the physician is being paid--it's really how much money is going to the middleman, the health insurer; and things won't change because no one wants the health insurance companies to earn less money, and physicians don't want to take less, and they shouldn't have to. So what's left? Outrageous, ever-rising health insurance premiums; $300 charges for a tablet of Tylenol in the hospital.)
  • Why do we let kids go hungry in our own country, or any other? Because we don't want to spend money to feed them. 
  • Why are schools teaching to the test and cutting out arts classes? Money. They're afraid that their district will lose federal money.
  • Why are experienced teachers let go and replaced with untrained newbies? Money.
  • Why did I lose my job? Big complicated story, but bottom line
  • Why are so many other people still unemployed despite increased bottom lines in many companies? Money.
  • Why do some people fear Democratic control of Congress? They think that Democrats don't care as much about their money.
  • Why aren't we doing more to protect our environment? Money.

Every time you want to get to the truth of a story, you need to, as "Deep Throat" said in "All the President's Men" (seminal book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and amazing film, from which I've quoted below), FOLLOW THE MONEY.

(From IMDB; click to get link)
Deep Throat: Follow the money.
Bob Woodward: What do you mean? Where?
Deep Throat: Oh, I can't tell you that.
Bob Woodward: But you could tell me that.
Deep Throat: No, I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I'll confirm. I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that's all. Just... follow the money. 

A friend sent me the article below. It's an opinion piece, but it's intelligent, researched, and I agree with it. All the lines below are ones I have pulled out from the article.

Follow the Money    Circleville (OH) Herald, 17 August 2010

  • Republicans don't want you to be able to follow the tsunamis of cold cash buying their loyalty.
  • Republican "Party of No" stalling allowed unemployment benefits to expire three times this year before they were finally overruled by Democrats.
  • Republican heartlessness this past month denied much needed benefits for 9/11 rescue workers suffering permanent respiratory injury for their selfless service at the World Trade Center. 
  • How did these guys manage to hoodwink so many of us into believing they are the party of faith and family values? Since the Reagan tax cutting (for the already rich) and deregulation revolution began we have seen a massive redistribution of wealth upwards.
  • America's two biggest economic crashes, 1929 and 2008, occurred after 9years and 30 years, respectively, of Republican dominated laissez faireconomics. 
  • Another myth held forth by unregulated free market ideologues is that the U.S. is a freely upwardly mobile society. 
  • This coming election season "refudiate"( Ms. Palin's term) all "faith and family values" smoke screens. Follow the real values, follow the money. Find out what corporation bought that attack ad you just saw. 
Don't be fooled; follow the money.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Academic Success is Only a Few Tutoring Sessions Away...

I normally do not use my blog to advertise anything, but I have a platform and I should use it to sell my abilities. Here's what I am doing now (well, this and writing my books and, probably, applying to medical school).  Please spread the word that I am open for business, and thanks so much for your support!

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One-on-one private tutoring is a wonderful investment in your child’s future!

I specialize in reading comprehension, vocabulary, verbal test prep
(SSAT; PSAT; SAT and ACT), and essay writing (academic essays; SAT essays; 
college application essays), but I can also help students develop more effective study skills in many other subjects, including Biology and Social Studies.

I can help your child learn to love reading, remember what s/he read,
find the answers within texts, and learn to write more fluidly and persuasively.

With eight years’ teaching experience at both the high school and college level, I hold my M.F.A. in English/Writing from the University of Iowa, and my B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College.

I have helped hundreds of students boost their exam scores and get into the colleges of their choice.

I teach strategy, but also real-life thinking skills, and I have written 
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E-mail Elizabeth Collins:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Human Trafficking is Everywhere...Not Just for Sex

The other week, I beceome alerted to the fact that people are being sold and trafficked right near me, and not just for sex/prostitution.

Who knew that such horror could be so close? Not me; I was entirely out of it.

Sr. A.M.  told me that she recently attended a conference about human trafficking, and that this problem is something she and her fellow nuns are working to understand, and they are also determined to try to educate people about this issue.

Good for them; I said I would try to help.

It is only through education, after all, that we can make things better.

So, to that end, my fifth grader just showed me how to do this!

I had no idea that women were being trafficked in America, let alone Philadelphia.

Sure, we've seen stories of women from, say, Mexico, being shuttled into the U.S. and used for the sex trade. 

There was also the film, "Taken," but that was just an action film. It couldn't be real...could it?

Yes, it could.

It's not just about the sex trade, though. Trafficking can mean just moving people for other nefarious purposes. 

Even teachers are trafficked (case in point: recent news stories about young Asian women being sent to the American South to work as teachers, but being forced to pay such a large part of their small salaries for the privilege of being sent to work that they can't ever get away, can't ever seem to get back home). 

That's called indentured servitude.

It happens more than we think.

Every immigrant desperate to get to the U.S. who pays money for help in getting here is often tied up the same way, paying money for years for the (often unsafe) passage to the states.

How many housekeepers and nannies are actually really--honestly--slaves? It's shocking to think about.

But we need to start thinking.

I just watched a show this morning about how "Craigslist" (that list creeps me out; I've heard too many bad things) is a place where not only sex is advertised and sold, but also child prostitutes--sex slaves--are being hawked for purposes of rape, and, of course, moneymaking. 

These young sex slaves can earn their pimps $1500 a night.

The sex slave herself gets raped ten times a day and doesn't see any money (not that getting paid would make anything here right).

I applaud ABC news and other journalists who exposed this story and put "Craig" on the spot about what is actually happening. I also think that society owes its gratitude to the women who dared to write to "Craig," telling their horrific stories about how the list made it possible for them to be advertised and sold.

"Craigslist" put out a statement that they are "screening" to make sure sex isn't being sold, but how can that be true? 

It's still being sold if that's what you want to buy, and because it makes millions of dollars a year in advertising revenue.

I am so sick of how every bad thing we deal with is tied up with money. 

As humans, why are we willing to put up with certain people getting rich by destroying and using others?

Human trafficking is, perhaps, the worst example, but there are also war profiteers; there are blood diamonds; there are even health insurance companies raking in record profits while raising their premiums 20% every year.

It's all bad. And immoral.

When will it stop? When we look around, realize what's happening and demand change.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hookers, Homeless Women, Hamburgers, Hot Dogs & My Husband

A new (short) essay of mine is now viewable here, on The Nervous Breakdown:

Please read and feel free to comment, and also check out the great work of other writers--especially the hysterically funny Tyler Stoddard Smith.

Also, if you like books and good deals, sign up for the $9.95/month book club on TNB!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Teacher and Student Angsting in August: The Yearly Ritual

Everyone heading back to school is freaking out right about now, and probably no one more so than a teacher.

I first realized (or noticed) that teachers tend to lose their minds in August--those last few weeks before the new school year begins--when I worked as a TA in grad school.

The frantic e-mails began in July, actually. The worried-sounding conversations with the professors took place with increasing frequency. I was handed lists of dozens of books to buy and read before classes began (yeah, right; I read one at a time, as needed. It wasn't possible to do things any other way...not on such late notice).

I didn't know quite what was happening but then I was told, "Oh, that's normal. Most of the professors basically have nervous breakdowns every August."

I thought that was sort of ridiculous, at the time. But soon enough--when I began teaching--I completely understood.

People rip on teachers and professors all the time for "not working all that much," and other cruelly simplistic lies.  

"Yeah, wish I could get paid XX a year and only work seven hours a day, nine months out of the year!" some people who hate teachers scoff. "Wish I could get a nice, year-long paid vacation every few years. Sabbaticals, please!"

The line about "sabbaticals" is always delivered with a sneer that makes it perfectly obvious that the sneerer considers sabbaticals to include copious amounts of CNN-watching, web-surfing, masturbation, and maybe a few minutes a day spent working on a mythical book.

Here's what I know: writing is hard work, book writing is especially daunting, and many breaks are needed from the writing, though I have never been on actual, paid sabbatical.

Professors have been hired and paid to not only teach but to also develop profound thoughts and share those ideas by way of frequent publication. In order to really think and write, they need peace and quiet and time away from the chaos of teaching. 

And yet--the teaching itself can be so stimulating. If teaching did not include so much grading or paperwork, it would or could be a fantastical garden of learning and ideas on both ends, students and instructor.

If teaching didn't include a peanut gallery of people who seem to hate teachers, people who aren't even in the class, then life would be so much more pleasant.

No one is more watched or under more pressure than a teacher. Kids are watching, yes, but their parents are also watching behind the scenes, or "watching" by way of dinner table conversations about their children's classes. The administrators conduct frequent observations (which is fine and has purpose; it just gets very stressful).

It's more than watching, though. Every student in a class is intimately aware of every detail about every teacher s/he has. 

Case in point: when I first taught, I realized that someone had compiled an entire website dedicated to cell phone photos of my (clothed) rear end, surreptitiously shot when I was writing on a board. 

The older I get, the more amusing I find this, but at the time, I thought I would have a total nervous breakdown. I was so stunned, so mortally offended.

"They weren't even paying attention to me (and to the profound thoughts I believed I was spouting)!" I felt like wailing. "They were just waiting to get a good look at my butt!"

No harm was meant, of course. The homage to my bottom was a compliment--if twisted and entirely inappropriate (and it was immediately deleted after I was alerted to its existence). 

But still, it made me extra-conscious of how depleting it is, when you teach, to know that you are being stared at. You are being listened to, yes, but so much mental energy is also going into trying to figure you out. 

When you teach, your ears burn. Your head feels hot. You put on an intellectual show; you dance around like crazy; you do your best for 40 minutes or an hour; and then, if you're by nature shy and quiet like me, you literally think you're going to collapse.

In colleges, you can take a break at this point. Classes generally don't run together too tightly. But in high school, you're just running to the next class or barely getting a sip of coffee before a new group tromps in. This can go on for hours. 

Then you eat lunch fast and do it all over again.

Then you scrub desks and grade papers and talk to the students who need to see you.

Then you go home and get your kids and make dinner and check their homework and try to grade papers and put your kids to bed and grade papers and get ready for bed and grade papers and fall dead asleep, only to wake up super early to grade papers before getting your kids up for school and getting dressed, yourself.

I am so happy that I don't have to grade any papers right now. I don't have to attend any summertime workshops in foreign cities, or spend these last few weeks writing new syllabi and welcome letters and preparing new materials for new classes that were just assigned to me. I also don't have to stay up way too late or wake up way too early just to be prepared for these classes.

No, right now instead of angsting about teaching, I am just waiting impatiently for my own kids' school to begin so I can be a stay-at-home writer. So far, this job isn't paying much, but I consider it my sabbatical. My very, very, very well-deserved sabbatical.

I plan to get my first two novels out into the world, finish a third and complete a nonfiction manuscript.  Then, I hope to land a university teaching job so I can start angsting again (as has become my ritual) in August.

Meanwhile, to all the students out there who are bemoaning the re-starting of school (or waiting eagerly and anxiously, as my own kids are): know that whatever you are feeling, your teachers are feeling it five times as strongly. Maybe ten times.

August is a weird month for everyone. It flies by too quickly and too slowly. August is too humid and hot; it gets too busy at the end with errands that need to be run, last-minute business that must be taken care of.

(In my house, we are all ready for school. And I mean ALL READY. Backpacks are loaded; school clothes are folded in their specific drawers. New shoes are waiting; even pencils are sharpened. My daughter got a blood blister tonight from sharpening all the pencils...)

Everyone freaks out a little right now, but look on the bright side: in a month, you won't be worried about it anymore. You'll be in the zone. You'll be angsting about the all-too-quickly approaching end of the first trimester or quarter. And so will your teachers.

Friday, August 6, 2010

What Have YOU Been Up to (I Mean Reading) This Summer?

Here is a list of what I've been reading (in chronological order) this past spring and current summer. I have actually read more than this, but some books I didn't bother to list (math books, books about web design, books about parenting). The books I've written about here are not necessarily new, though some are (and one isn't even out yet--"Dangerous Neigbors" by Beth Kephart!), but as we all have books on our bedside tables that we've been meaning to get to, I don't think "new" matters all that much. It's the reading that counts. Read everything you can and the world becomes so much smaller, and brighter.

Powerful, affecting, and stays with you for a long, long time.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (the sequel)
I am so sorry to say that I found this novel to be not nearly as good as The Hunger Games, but if you loved that story, you will, of course, want to read the follow-up.

"Catching Fire" felt to me as all plot with few ideas/introspection--not like the original. My criticism is that there is far too much telling, not enough showing, but perhaps that is to be expected for a novel I assume was written under very tight deadline.

It's still a great story, and an entertaining, thought-provoking read for all ages. 

Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town by Elyssa East
I was impressed by the research and years of interviews and personal trips that went into this nonfiction homage to a creepy, wild, woody place in Massachusetts and the people who live there, though I don’t think there’s enough real story here. I kept reading, desperate to get to the big realization about Dogtown, the solution to the mystery, and....pffft.

Not enough actually happens over the course of the book to make the ending feel like a payoff…and it absolutely needed photos and reprints of artwork in order to make sense to the reader, especially since so much attention was paid to this history of art created in Dogtown and how that art inspired the author to explore Dogtown in the first place.

Still, if you are from MA, and you've ever heard of Dogtown (or the Salem witches, or anything of that ilk), you may be intrigued by this book. It's quite well written and engaging even though it leaves you wondering, "Huh?"

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
I had to read this novel. First, because it's a big part of pop culture right now, but also because I love the idea of the story. It spoke to me on a personal level (hah!): a journalist falsely accused of making someone look bad in his writing (even though it was well deserved and totally true, and he didn't really do anything wrong). 

But the actual words in the novel were boring, I thought (e.g.: "He made coffee. They drank coffee. They went to bed together"), which I attribute to a sub-par translation. Still, if you can deal with the flatness just to get the story, go for it. I personally won't buy any more books in this series because I had to (uncharacteristically) force myself to finish "Dragon Tattoo," though if they are lying around a beach house, I will surely pick them up. 

These stories beg to be films, even though I usually think books are  better than films. Because of the language barrier (Swedish to English), this is an exception...unless a Swedish-speaking American poet tries his or her hand at the next translation. Those poets always do an excellent job...

Just Don’t Call Me Ma’am by Anna Mitchael 
A cute memoir, but I am not the ideal reader for this book (about a young woman's traumatic breakup with her live-in lover, and her fears about becoming a cat woman). I am on a different wavelength, and I got married and had kids in my 20s, and I just felt this book was fluffy and sort of silly. Some people may absolutely love it, but I guess I'm too deep and serious, even though I certainly appreciate humor. You can see my review, which I hated to write because I never, ever want to be discouraging to anyone, on

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie  
A very impressive, very accessible novel about a 14-year old Indian boy who leaves the rez in Washington state to attend the white kids' high school 22 miles away...and he has to hitchhike or walk there most of the time. This is what I think of as a guy’s book that young girls (and all readers) will love, as well. I read it to help one of my students with her summer reading, and although I initially looked at it and saw the National Book Award medallion and thought it might have been awarded for PC reasons, the voice and themes of this easy-to-appreciate novel--with fabulous cartoons!--will speak to readers of all ages. I read this book in about two hours. Pick it up!

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
I will be honest: when I first read excerpts of this memoir in magazines a year or two ago, I thought to myself: I have no interest in reading some whiny story about a woman who doesn't want to have kids. I mean, I can understand that and even sympathize with it, but if the whole book was going to be about that, I didn't think I wanted to spend time reading that story. Then, I saw some of the big foodie part in Italy where the author bought three or four gelatos a day and ate two pizzas in one sitting, and it just make me think: "Lady, you are eating like an absolute pig. You need to watch it or you will quickly weigh 400 lbs." 

The sections on India and Bali redeemed the memoir for me. I came away--after finally reading it (and I don't think I will see the film for a while; Julia Roberts sort of annoys me)--quite impressed. I truly loved the spiritual section of the memoir and how the entire work was so artfully crafted. 

I also got something out of the spiritual petition Gilbert writes about, and I wrote my own. Hope I am as charmed and blessed as Gilbert clearly is. She is an interesting woman with a gift, and I do think this memoir is ultimately very important. If the film makes you pick up the book, so be it. It's also really inexpensive at Target right now...

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Another memoir I have meant to read for quite a while, but my teaching (and needing to read other books for my work) long kept me from this true story about one man making a real difference, building schools for girls and undertaking other humanitarian projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

I initially wanted to read this because the book's message is about how one person who cares can change the world. I thought that might be a good thing for students to read, but I don't think this memoir would appeal to them, in terms of its serious style. Still, it's so well written, so impeccably researched, so timely and resonant that I do think it should be required reading, perhaps in colleges. 

Many people talk about making a difference, but few people (such as Greg Mortenson) actually dedicate their lives to helping other people, at great personal sacrifice.  Mortenson shows by his example how the "war on terror" can only be won through education, and the message of "Three Cups of Tea" is important politically and spiritually. A must-read.

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt
I have been wanting to read this memoir for months, as I am about the same age as the author’s deceased daughter (who died, unexpectedly, of heart issues while using the treadmill).

Making Toast is the story of how two grandparents suddenly become parents again themselves, when they move to help to take care of their deceased daughter's young children. I didn’t want to buy it in the bookstore because it is thin and was priced at nearly $30.

I eventually got it from the library…the prose is economical (which is how I write, too); the tone is, I think, perfect (some may find it flat, but I understand that deeply emotional subjects actually demand a simple tone, lest they become maudlin and impossible to read). Also, I lived in Quogue, which is the home of the author; I know some of the people mentioned in the book. Loved it! A good gift for parents who are now grandparents...

Claiming Ground by Laura Bell
A damn gorgeous memoir that I found in my library about a woman who chooses a rugged, independent life and spends years communicating with dogs and horses, and the occasional drunk, off-duty cowboy, working as a shepherd up in Wyoming. I always think of shepherding as some long-lost art, some throwback to a simpler, possibly better way of life (but actually, it sounds hard and sometimes quite disgusting...wrapping orphaned lambs in the skins of other dead lambs, etc).

Claiming Ground is full of introspective, evocative word-spinning by a writer who very easily paints beautiful pictures in her readers' minds. Powerfully written by a true artist. It's a bit--just barely--of Brokeback Mountain without the homosexuality (and I thought Brokeback Mountain by E. Annie Proulx was excellent, so don't assume I am anti-gay; I am not.)

Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart (release date: Aug 24!)
This lovely novel (and I'm not sure if it's YA because its protagonist is a teen, or if the audience shouldn't care about her age; I will go with the latter idea and deem it a cross-over) is chock full of beautiful, descriptive writing.

A sample: "Before Katherine lies the Bertholdi Fountain, a French fantasy of sea nymphs and frogs, cherubs, turtles, and fish. The nymphs hold a cast-iron basin above their heads, as if it weighs nothing, and Katherine envies their strength then looks beyond it--to the rising and falling of the Centennial acres, the glint and silks of the buildings, the fanning women who are being pushed about in their rolling chairs, and now the Centennial rail train has come in on its narrow-gauge tracks, not far from where Katherine is standing."

"Dangerous Neighbors" is an evocative, incredibly well researched novel about a teenager in Philadephia in 1867 (the backdrop is the Philadelphia Centennial Fair, as seen above) coping with the death of her twin and her own survivor's guilt. 

The author is a past finalist for the National Book Award, but I actually felt irritated, reading the galley of this novel (sent to me for review), that such beautiful prose would probably not see the light of day if not for this author's past awards and a publisher willing to take a risk, as so few seem to be nowadays (which is sad and horrible for all of us, actually).

I am not sure that Kephart's scintillating words will be properly appreciated or speak to a huge audience of contemporary readers, though I sincerely hope they will, and if there is adequate or skilled marketing/PR, it will happen. But "Dangerous Neighbors" should be read and hand-sold by booksellers, and sold by word of mouth promotion. It's very, very good, and this novel could definitely work well in a writing class--showing young writers what can be done with words.

Kephart is clearly a writing talent who not only deftly imagines but also really works at getting the details right.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Wow! Lovely prose and profound philosophy (which is right up my alley as I originally intended to become a philosophy professor before I got burned out by the subject), great language and it’s a translation from the French.

(Whenever a translation is really well done, it lets me know that the original must have been mind-bogglingly brilliant, like anything by Nabokov, who knew English perfectly, I believe, or Dostoyevsky. Too bad my French isn't good enough for me to attempt to read the original. I always think I can read French, but I miss so much.)

All in all, this novel is practically perfect. Truly important. I'm going to read it again right now.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay 
by Michael Chabon

Ten years after its publication (and I loved "Wonder Boys" by this author), I finally got the book. Chabon is so impressive, a real writer’s writer. He is at the top of his game with this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and it reminds me of the work of the young John Irving.  Excellent. I am still reading this one--hence the brief, non-review--and I realize I am incredibly late, but I am savoring every word...

Happy reading!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Gringos and Punk Rock in Guadalajara: A Cautionary Tale

When I was 19, I decided to impetuously travel to Mexico to visit a guy. I had only recently met him (through a friend), but he had already declared his intense love for me, via a series of romantic, letter-filled FedEx packages, and I was unspeakably flattered.

I had never been to Mexico before. I also had very strict parents. Luckily, they were away.

My best friend drove me to the airport (I was flush with cash from a summer office job), and when I got there, I called my mother, who was in Florida with my father, visiting her family. “Mom, I'm going to Mexico. I’m flying into Guadalajara,” I said when I called.

She laughed. “You are not,” she said.

I could hear my aunt Mary chirping in the background. “What’s she saying?” Mary asked. My mother repeated what I’d said, in a tone that decried how insane I was. I could picture them, dancing around the kitchen, drinking wine, chopping vegetables for a salad.

My aunt is a free spirit, an artist. “Ooh! Mexico!” she said. “I love Mexico! Tell her to have fun!”

I hung up the phone and boarded the plane; I would be back in ten days. Fate must have decreed that I would get there. I had consulted the I Ching, which counseled something like, “There is great benefit to traveling southwest.” Okay, then.

Bolts of lightning flashed around the plane as we landed very slowly, but I was not nervous at all. Landings are the most dangerous point of the flight, I later learned, but personally, I’ve always felt relieved and not scared to be landing.

My new love was at the airport. Thank God. That meant I didn't have to sleep in one of the terminal's hard plastic chairs and fly back home in shame.

We spent the next week hotel hopping through the mountains, eating grilled shrimp by the western beaches, swimming at midnight and drinking way too much.

Towards the end of this blissful, surreal trip, we returned to Guadalajara so that he could take some exam—the whole reason he was in Mexico: intensive Spanish immersion to fulfill his university’s foreign language requirement.

After the test, he consulted a newspaper for night life ideas. A punk band was playing in a club. “Mexican punk rock,” he said. “I have to see this.”

We walked to the club, which was nondescript, a low brown building next to a junkyard. A big shaggy collie was lying on the pavement of the junkyard, suckling ten or so pups. She looked up at us as we passed, as if she might have to kill us.

Inside, the club was utterly unlike any I had seen before, or have seen since. It was well lit, trying to be elegant (in the strange way that Indian restaurants try to look fancy with tiny pink lights and plastic flowers).

Guadalajara’s rich kids wore pressed trousers and sat sedately in fan-backed wicker chairs. They drank something syrupy and pale orange from round wineglasses.

New love and I were slumming it, so we ordered a bucket of little bottles of beer. In Mexico, as most people know, beer is served with lime, and this beer came with an artful mound of limes, some whole, some halved, some cut into tiny wedges.

The music started soon, and this punk band was comprised of wiry, tiny, dark-skinned boys, probably our own age. They screamed in Spanish and popped up and down on the stage like Whack-a-Moles.

I can’t say if this band was good or not. I really don’t speak Spanish. Also, no one in the crowd was responding in any way; they just sat still in their throne chairs, peering rather dully at the stage.

The band’s frontman bounced higher and higher. The music screeched and pounded. The singer screamed so loudly I thought his uvula might fly across the room.

“This band really sucks,” new boyfriend declared. I nodded. We drank more.

“You know what I want to do?” he asked. I knew what I wanted to do, but I just asked, “What?”

“I want to take this lime…” he fingered a whole one, “and whip it at them. They suck so bad.”

“Do it,” I said, never thinking he actually would, but fifty or so ounces of Dos Equis had made me uncharacteristically bold. “You should totally do it.”

He did. I hadn’t mentioned before that he was a baseball player. A pitcher. The hard green lime smacked against the front of the band’s drum kit. Tears came to my eyes.

“More,” I commanded, “Throw more!” I was sobbing with laughter while surreptitiously glancing around the room. No one seemed to have noticed the lime throwing, which made it even funnier. The band was still playing as loudly and poorly as ever.

Fruit flew from his hands, though my boyfriend remained seated. This was sneaky lime whipping. Limes skittered across the stage; one hit the bass player in the knee. No response. The cacophony of the band continued.

No one was looking at us. No one said anything. This just made us, in our drunkenness, laugh harder. Even I threw a few limes.

The final lime my boyfriend threw hit the frontman smack in the face. Strangely, he finished his “song.” Then the music stopped. Frontman spoke into the mic in rapid-fire Spanish, clearly furious.

“Ooooohhhh,” the crowd murmured. Then they were pointing at us! “Gringos, gringos,” they chanted. It sounded like a death knell.

The blood drained from my face. I pictured gang rape, or lynching, or getting hacked to death in the alley behind this club.

Boyfriend said, “Don’t worry, I’ll say something…but if it gets bad, you run that way,” he pointed to a side door. I was planning to run, if I had to, but I didn’t know where to go after I got out. Plus, I would feel like a horrible person just leaving him there to face the mob. But what could I do?

We are so stupid, I kept thinking. We must have had acid-laced beer, to think that we could pelt a band with limes for a solid half an hour or so, and not have anyone call us on it.

I actually felt pretty bad about the last lime—a juicy one, halved—that hit the singer in the face. That was a low blow. Humiliating. But what a great shot it had been! There was still pulp on the frontman’s forehead. He hadn’t even bothered to wipe it off.

Gringos!” The chant was building. Gunfire bursts of speech were coming from the stage. My boyfriend stood up.

I stopped breathing, but he was talking loudly and laughing. He kept shrugging his shoulders in an “Aw, shucks!” sort of way, smiling broadly and holding up his palms in supplication.

I had no idea what was being said, only that I wasn’t quite positive if the crowd was buying it. But then the band members started grunting and nodding.

My boyfriend sat down, still smiling, totally relaxed. He was ridiculously cute, like a young Jim Morrison.

“What did you say?” I demanded in a whisper. “And what did that guy say before, when I thought they were going to kill us?”

“He said, ‘Will the mofo who threw the limone stand up like a man and present himself so I can kick his ass?'’’

“Your Spanish is awesome!” I gushed. “You got all that? You totally aced that exam, I bet. So what did you say?”

“I just explained how in America when we think a band is amazing, we show our admiration by throwing fruit. I said they were the most excellent punk band I have ever heard in Mexico, and so we threw all the fruit we had, to show our sincere respect.”

The explanation was so absurd, it couldn’t be disbelieved. Our beer ended up being on the house, though we left an exceedingly generous tip.

We stumbled from the club, clutching each other, still laughing.

I felt a little nervous as we passed the dark alley and the junkyard, but no one messed with the gringos.

I had a couple of limes in my pocket, though. Just in case.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

What Makes Up the Largest Part of Deficit? Bush's Tax Cuts

I love me some Fareed Zakaria, and today, my love for this intellectual foreign policy wonk only increased. (I mean "love" as in appreciate for his insight; I prefer Zakaria's writing to his TV show, though both are excellent in different ways.)

Today,  policy expert Zakaria had a handy little segment on his show (CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS") where he demonstrated how the largest swath of the deficit is actually due to the Dubya-era tax cuts for the wealthy. 

He called those cuts "irresponsible," which they obviously are/were, and he wondered aloud how the Republicans can go around blaming Obama for the deficit (which is absurd) and "running it up," when it was their own guy who caused the problem with tax cuts...and, oh yes, (as I note here) those two never-ending, pointless and hopelessly expensive wars.

Clinton, Zakaria reminded his viewers, was the only president to preside over a balanced budget in 40 years. Erasing the Bush tax cuts would bring tax levels back to what they were during Clinton's tenure, when, as you may recall, we had the strongest economic growth in decades.

If Republicans vote early next year to extend the ridiculous Bush tax cuts, then we will know with absolute certainty that they don't care jack about the deficit, only about being difficult.

Typically, though, Republicans have been ranting and raving about how we can't spend money on social programs "because of the huge deficit."

But unemployment benefits, as Zakaria noted, are good for the economy, in actuality, since the money doled out is instantly returned. Taxes saved are usually only stuffed under a mattress, especially since the Great Recession. That doesn't help the deficit at all, and anyone who tells you more tax cuts are what we need is talking out of the wrong orifice (sorry, but it's true).

There is a solution, though, to eradicating at least 30% of the deficit (that is hundreds of billions of dollars), and it can be accomplished instantaneously, as soon as the stupid tax cuts expire, as they will soon: simply don't renew them.

Thirty percent of the deficit goes away, and no one gets hurt.

It's like magic.

Who couldn't agree to a solution so easy? It's the perfect way for a "do-nothing Congress to do...nothing and yet actually accomplish something," as Zakaria pointed out.

Will it happen? Yes, if we demand it. So get busy, since you know Congress is full of scaredy cats who only care about saving their own tails. They have to act like they did something, even if they actually didn't...