Blog

Welcome to my blog where I will post commentary on issues ranging from fiction to public policy. Tucked away in the Idea Boxes are “how to” tips on a variety of projects that have become part of our family’s culture over the years. I hope you’ll find some useful ideas there. My blog will take you through the fantastic journey of writing fiction, as well as the decisions I will be making about publication of my first novel One Summer in Arkansas. Thanks for your interest.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

John Adams and the Government Shutdown


Our family reads aloud at the dinner table after meals, the current selection being John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1775 – 1783.  The volume consists mainly of letters written during the years when Adams and the other founders were in Philadelphia putting together a government that would serve the people of the American colonies.

I have ever thought it the most difficult and dangerous part of the business Americans have to do in this mighty contest, to contrive some method for the colonies to glide insensibly from under the old government into a peaceable and contented submission to new ones.

Adams’ letters reflect the commitment these men felt to creating a form of government that would work for the people.  They negotiated and argued fervently among themselves about how such a government should be constituted – what class of people should get the vote, how to give the individual states autonomy within a single nation, what tenure to give elected officials and so on.  But they felt a strong sense of common purpose.

There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest, honor, power and glory, established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty.

Can’t help but wonder what John Adams would have thought about today’s impasse in Congress and the shutdown of our government.

Partisanship is inevitable, and maybe necessary, in a democracy.  What has changed is the sense of common purpose and the passion for the public good. 

I’m not sure what it would take to make us feel once again part of the same team.

But, like John Adams, I think both our liberty and our very form of government are put at risk when we consider only our own needs and preferences and lose our focus on the common good.  

Monday, September 23, 2013

Committee for Dish Access

Please join those of us from the Peninsula who want to continue to have access to Stanford’s Dish hiking trail.  As you may know (http://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/show_story.php?id=30977), Stanford is planning to eliminate over half the parking spots on Stanford Avenue and substitute parking on Coyote Hill Road, south of Page Mill and a good half mile from the Dish gate.

Two community meetings have been held on this subject, but few Dish walkers have shown up.  The audience consisted largely of Stanford neighbors who are tired of so much traffic on Stanford Avenue and on their streets.

Stanford Community Relations will take additional comments on this subject before it goes to County of Santa Clara for approval at communityrelations@Stanford.edu.  Please let them know that you care about access to the Dish and appreciate the health benefits of Stanford’s beneficence, but that Coyote Hill Road is too far from the gate and too cumbersome to cross busy Page Mill and walk so far along Junipero Serra before hitting the first hill.  You can ask Stanford Community Relations to be put on their mailing list for information about Dish parking.

Also we have formed a Committee for Dish Access and hope you will consent to joining our email list by sending an email to CommitteeforDishAccess@gmail.com.  This will not result in your name or email address being sent to anyone else without your consent.  It just enables us to keep you informed and to organize the community if future opportunities come up for your input.

If people who hike the Dish don’t speak up, we could find ourselves without access to this wonderful space.

PLEASE FORWARD THIS LINK TO FRIENDS WHO MAY BE INTERESTED IN DISH ACCESS.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking


America’s love affair with extroverts began in the early part of the 20th century, when people like Dale Carnegie impressed upon our parents the importance of winning friends and influencing people in order to be successful. 

But our cultural preference for extroversion was not always a part of our national psyche.  In the 19th century, America judged leadership potential the same way many countries do today – on the basis of integrity, judgment, reliability and intelligence.

The emerging growth cultures of Asia are not the only places in the world today puzzled by the America’s continuing obsession with popularity and by our insistence upon turning over most of our elective offices, executive management positions and financial control to people who would rather talk than listen, who make quick decisions based on gut instinct and who prefer risk to contemplation.

Susan Cain’s defense of introverts, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking weaves together research and personal anecdotes to make a case for taking a second look at the value brought to relationships and organizations by our quieter, more sensitive citizens.

She challenges the corporate focus on team building, open space offices and endless meetings, recounting histories of influential leaders who had a preference to work alone and in quiet.  She is surprised that scarcely an introvert is to be found on the hallowed grounds of Harvard Business School and wonders whether Enron or the economic collapse of the housing market would have happened if the investment banks had put in positions of responsibility fewer talkers and more thinkers.

 Ms. Cain’s chapter on raising sensitive children provides useful guidance to parents of children who don’t easily adjust to the forced extroversion of years of schooling in an environment better suited to outgoing personalities.

I’m not generally a fan of self-help books or psychological non-fiction.  I listened to the audio version of this book while running errands.  But Susan Cain is insightful and perceptive, and this book is worth reading.  





Monday, August 5, 2013

August Special!

The first 25 people to purchase a copy of One Summer in Arkansas from Amazon.com during the month of August will receive an additional, signed copy of the novel delivered to the recipient of your choice. Not only will you end the summer with a great read, you will be able to share an amazing story with a friend or family member at no charge! Simply email your date of purchase on Amazon along with the name and address of the gift recipient to Marciakempsterling@sonic.net and we'll mail a signed copy of One Summer in Arkansas to the book lover of your choice! Happy Reading!


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Summertime

Summer is the season for family and vacation, so my focus on selling books has been set aside for the moment.

I’m on a flight back to the Bay Area after a week in Boston for our annual Uniform Law Conference.  Since Nat is a commissioner and has to be there, he booked a flight, while I’m travelling standby, one of the perks associated with having a pilot in the family.  Note to parents:  Make sure that at least one of your kids pursues a career flying for a commercial airline. 

Our speaker at the ULF dinner this year was Doris Kearns Goodwin, discussing the Lincoln presidency, a topic of much interest to our conference of lawyers.



We arrive home with only a week to prepare for Cousin Camp, the annual gathering of our clan when our children and grandchildren make their way to Palo Alto from all over the world.  It’s always interesting to have 22 people in your house for a week, but this year will be special, culminating in Deb and Steve’s wedding in the backyard.  Arts and crafts at Cousin Camp will be devoted entirely to wedding decorations this year.

All five granddaughters will participate in the ceremony, providing a charming pink backdrop for our beautiful bride.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mental Illness and Violence

Last week we went over to Stanford to hear a discussion on mental illness and crime co-sponsored by the law school and the medical school.

Our society faces increasing pressure from a growing number of mentally ill people, many manifesting a lethal blend of mental disorder and addiction and either living on the streets or filling up our jails.

For me, the discussion at Stanford raised more questions than it answered.

In the same way that our educators are learning that every kid has “special needs” associated with his unique way of learning, is it possible that most human beings have unique mental issues, some of which are at odds with societal expectations?

Is it possible that most criminal acts (not just the typical over-the-top acts of violence) reflect a breakdown of mental process, whether it’s impulse control, ability to link action to outcome, fear, anger, anxiety or delusion?

How does the legal system distinguish between the insanity defense for a crime (inability to understand the consequences, right from wrong, etc.) from terrorism (an erroneous belief that an act will be rewarded in heaven)?

Of course, at the end of the day, the extent to which the legal system accommodates to psychiatrically-defined mental illness depends on how a legislature views the goals of criminal punishment:

            Getting a dangerous person off the streets?

            Making a role model out of him so someone else won’t do the same thing?

            Rehabilitating him so that he can become a useful citizen?

            Making him pay for what he did?

I don’t have any answers, but I think there is a problem.  Most mentally ill people do not commit crimes.  Our society has decided we should not institutionalize people against their will if they are not an immediate threat.  But leaving people to live on the streets is not a great solution.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Living on Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan

My good friend and today’s guest blogger, Nancy Glaser, Senior Economic Advisor for USAID, tells about everyday life at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan
One of the most interesting experiences I never anticipated was being assigned to live and work on Bagram Air Field for my 12 month tour of duty with USAID in Afghanistan.

When I arrived here on June 20th, 2012 I was amazed by the vastness of the physical space as well as the number of people living and working here. Of the estimated 30,000, the U.S. military makes up the majority (the “green suiters”) of which 90% are male.
Bagram is located in the “high desert” (5,000 feet high) and it is dusty, especially in the summer which requires wearing glasses 24 hours a day.
Our housing consists of living in my personal “hooch”, an 8’by 20’ metal “dry” container. Our shower and bathroom facilities are in a separate building which we share with female military and civilians. We live on the flight line and air craft are taking off and landing 24 hours a day. This includes helicopters all the way up to the Boeing B-17. Wearing ear plugs to sleep at night is recommended. We have TV and internet access. 

We civilians are embedded with the military both at work and other activities. We all eat together in the DFAC (Dining Facility) where up to 1,500 people eat together. The food is amazingly  good and there is a good variety for every palette including vegetarians.
There is a “spa” on Bagram that offers hair and nail services as well as massages. The women who work there are all from Kyrgyzstan and speak Russian. They do a very nice job at very good prices (shampoo, cut, and blow dry costs only $14).
I get “out” about every other week to visit provincial governors, line directors and business men. My position as RC East Senior Economic Advisor for USAID is to promote private sector development. This is not the easiest job in a war zone, but some progress is made day by day. I travel by MRAP, “fixed” wing small Beechcraft planes or helicopters. We are always accompanied by military and military police. I actually feel safe traveling this way.
Sometimes I feel like I am in a movie.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Mother's Day

As Mother’s Day approaches, I am of course reminded of my own mother, who died way too young, almost 50 years ago.

Now that our children are grown, this holiday for us is mainly about the bird’s eye view of parenting that comes from watching them raise their own kids.  I’m sure there will be many cards and hand-crafted treasures bestowed on the young mothers in our family on Sunday.

Billy Collins’ incomparable “The Lanyard” comes to mind:

       She nursed me in many a sick room,
       lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
       laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
       and then led me out into the airy light


      And taught me to walk and swim,
      and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

The real giving, with all its obsessive fretting and pride and hope, flows down and down to the next generation.  Among my loveliest memories are the faces of our children watching their children walk and run and dance, with so much amazement at each miraculous stage of growth in these young lives they brought into being.

They are so busy, these young mothers, and you wish you could somehow will them to slow down, to savor it, to forget about rushing out the door to buy the next birthday toy for the classmate. 

Life is long but childhood is short.

Happy Mother’s Day, one and all!  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Brothers Tsarnaev

Now that the initial shock of the Boston Marathon bombings has subsided and the perpetrators killed or captured, we can step back and contemplate the senseless carnage visited on bystanders by these young men.

Much has been written about the apparent likeability of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, coupled with dismay that their American education and assimilation did nothing to inhibit their deadly jihadist impulses.  But nothing in the Koran or logic can explain or justify the misguided belief among radical Islamists that random violence will somehow further their cause or settle the score for perceived injustices.

Impulse control in young men has been a societal challenge since the beginning of time and we probably don’t do enough in our schools, churches, mosques and families to teach our boys the link between action and consequence.  Think about a young man from the poverty-ridden inner city who wants money to buy a six-pack of beer.  He goes into a Seven-Eleven and winds up shooting the clerk, unable in a moment of panic to link the outcome of his impulsive action to a little boy at home who will cry himself to sleep night after night because he has lost a father.  We spend so much collective energy trying to educate our young people, but somehow fail to give them the tools to navigate the hazardous process of growing up in a stressful and competitive world.

I read the Koran as part of a study group at my church and was struck by how similar it is to the Old Testament.  These ancient writings reflect cultures at war and they are similarly belligerent towards other tribes.  Most religious warfare has been about class or politics or tribalism and not about religion, and that’s true of the Islamic fundamentalist movement too.

Conservatives are too quick to blame Islam and liberals are too focused on political correctness to talk sensibly about solutions to this endless, senseless violence.  Just as Christians should speak out against extremists who justify bigotry or sexism through the Bible, leaders in Islam should do more to condemn acts of violence in the name of their religion.

I’m sure the families of Tamerlan and Dzokhar are just as devastated by their horrific actions as would have been the Newtown, Connecticut mother of Adam Lanza, had she lived to see the painful legacy of her son’s life. 

It’s too much burden to place on the shoulders of parents of young men who go horribly wrong.  We need to do more as citizens of an ever-smaller world community to provide moral grounding in values that prepare them for a complex and sometimes painful journey to adulthood.     

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why Small is Better

The argument against big government has always struck me as a red herring, just another way of saying we'd be better off without a common touchstone as a nation, rejecting the notion of collective concern for the common good.

For one thing, I've never believed state government was particularly more efficient, less corrupt or better managed.

But I have to admit a personal bias in favor of "small" when it comes to most things, and that includes corporations, schools, social groups and, yes, government.

It takes extraordinary management skill to run a big organization well.  If you doubt this, walk into any local outlet of a large corporation and think about whether the person helping you cares one whit about whether you ever come back, in spite of whatever catch-phrase-of-the-day they've been taught to recite as you check out.

The reality is that we are motivated tribally, and the bigger the tribe, the less likely we are to feel responsible for it.

Unfortunately the capital markets require successful businesses to keep getting bigger quarter after quarter, so that eventually even the best-run corporations are dragged down by the weight of this perpetual growth.

Think about our schools and the vast wasteland of massive urban high schools with thousands of testosterone-driven adolescents locked up together all day in institutional anonymity without any long-term commitment to each other or any sense of community.

True, we are a big, populous country and can't go back to a village economy.

But if we could break institutions into smaller units, maybe we could eliminate some of the waste and inefficiency, not to mention the loneliness and lack of engagement that all too many Americans experience in their daily lives.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Oxford American: Why Reading Still Matters


Strapped into my seat on a cross-country flight, I can indulge in the rare pleasure of reading something worthwhile.

The Oxford American, produced in that most improbable of literary headwaters -- the great state of Arkansas -- is packed with thought-provoking, beautifully written pieces that engage your mind and heart in a way that couldn’t be further removed from the drivel we are fed by the popular media.

My eye was drawn to this caveat by editor Roger Hodge at the beginning of the magazine:

“… if you are reading these words you have entered an aesthetic zone that is as free as possible from the hectoring voices of opinion merchants and professional manipulators of resentment and rage.”

Writing for its own sake?  Not trying to sell something?  What a concept.  In an age when news broadcasting has become cynically profit-driven, creating perpetual controversy for financial gain, and when serious fiction has been undercut by our stressed-out longing to read nothing more challenging than escapist action adventure, it is a sweet indulgence to spend a couple of hours with my nose in a literary magazine.

The Oxford American spotlights Southern culture – fiction, photography, music, the arts – beautifully laid out, with superb storytelling.

 Storytelling has been central to the way we human beings have understood ourselves and our world from the time man first walked this earth.   It is at the core of all the world’s major religions. It gives children a universe of experiences, thus enabling them to imagine the trajectories their own lives could take.  

If you enjoy the beauty of a well-turned phrase or the drama and pathos of Southern fiction or stunning photography of rural America, you’ve got to check out the Oxford American.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Writing Books and Speaking Out

Even though many authors are drawn to the solitary business of writing because they prefer the written word to social intercourse, one of the by-products of releasing a book is that people expect you to show up and talk about it.

I’m thinking about public speaking because I have a reading at Kepler’s Bookstore tonight, wondering how this foray into writing has led me right back to the place I thought I was escaping.

                                               
I did a lot of public speaking during my career as a lawyer and the unreliable voice caused by a neurological disorder called spasmodic dysphonia was a big factor in my decision to retire.  The journey from being a retired attorney who still had something to say to writing a novel was not as big a leap of faith as you might imagine.

Because today’s book publishing industry is in such turmoil and disarray, the risk of your book dying on the vine is bigger than ever.  At the same time, the opportunity for a book to gain traction is wide open to anybody and everybody, as the power of the Internet, ebooks and new channels of distribution are increasingly democratizing the book business.

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle, the Director of UCSF’s Anxiety Disorders Program Tracy Foose talked about some of the positive aspects of anxiety, a human survival gene that is “highly preserved across species” because it gives us the energy and heightened awareness to outperform in the face of perceived danger.

I plan to leverage that performance gene tonight in hopes of reaching new readers who will find pleasure and hopefully something of meaning to carry away with them after reading One Summer in Arkansas.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Viral Power of Blogging

Among the lessons I've learned in publishing a novel is that the Internet is an amazing tool to spread ideas.  Blogging enables distribution of information at the headwaters of a network of connections that lead all sorts of unexpected places.

Last week's book review of One Summer in Arkansas by Aimee Whetstine on her popular blog "Everyday Epistle" has opened so many doors, especially among young people around the country who follow Aimee's work and respect her opinions.

Today, another popular blogger, Amy Heinz, whose parenting site "Using Our Words" is followed by many parents of young children, used some of the characters in One Summer in Arkansas to address the persistent specter of parenting gone wrong, including a giveaway of the book on her site:  http://usingourwords.com/

When you undertake the serious work of writing something you hope will see the light of day, you expect to encounter challenges and to learn something along the way.  Sometimes you're surprised at what that turns out to be.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Have You Read Any Rilke This Week?


In an age of disruption – the economic displacement caused by globalization, the social changes enabled by technology, the fractiousness of political polarization – it’s easy to lose your bearings.

Nothing grounds you like good poetry.

Many of the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke speak of surrender, of yielding to something bigger than yourself.

For all of us who are determined to control our lives through force of will, it’s useful to listen to what Rilke has to say about the swan – so awkward on land and so magnificent when, reluctantly letting go of solid ground, he gives in to what he was meant to be.


This laboring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it,
is like the lumbering gait of the swan.

And then our dying—releasing ourselves
from the very ground on which we stood—
is like the way he hesitantly lowers himself

into the water.  It gently receives him,
and, gladly yielding, flows back beneath him,
as wave follows wave,
while he, now wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure,
allows himself to glide.

Thank you, Mary Maaga.

Friday, January 18, 2013

‘One Summer in Arkansas’ Book Review by Aimee Whetstine

Marcia Kemp Sterling’s first novel One Summer in Arkansas draws readers into the “intoxicating warmth” of a southern summer, from Thomas Hinton’s soulful cover art to the final twist of resolution.

The story spins around small-town golden boy Lee Addison. His smarts, hard work, and genes are about to pay off. At the behest of his mother, Lee returns to his hometown of Riverton in rural Arkansas to spend one last summer there between graduating from Stanford Law School and beginning his career. It’s the early 90s, and Lee is poised for success in the sleek, corporate law firms of San Francisco. But Lee’s last summer in Riverton resurrects a tangle of abandonment, addiction, murder, passion, and sullied histories that rise to burn with the summer temperatures.

Read the full review by Aimee Whetstine...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Beginning for the New Year

For the last 15 years we’ve spent New Year’s Eve weekend at a small retreat held at Asilomar on the Monterey Peninsula, just up the road from Spanish Bay.  The Ano Nuevo retreat was started by a local couple who didn’t care for New Year’s Eve parties but did enjoy conversations around a fireplace on issues that matter.

There are walks along the sand dunes under the bright California sun as waves shatter onto the rocks and deer nibble grasses under the pines, followed by fireplace chats among friends that lend a new perspective on issues that affect all of us.

This year I moderated a discussion on the subject of how to keep growing physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually during the retirement years.

Like every other phase of life (raising children, establishing yourself in your profession), success in the retirement years requires strategy and new skills.  While it’s a relief to own your own time and escape the pressures of work, we need to keep trying new things to maximize our enjoyment and vibrancy during this phase of life.

Using the work of Martin Seligman to frame the discussion, we talked about the three elements of a life of well-being:  (1) positive emotion, (2) engagement and (3) meaning.  The last two are key elements for seniors.

Seligman talks about engagement as “being in the flow,” i.e., when you are so wrapped up in what you are doing that you lose sense of time.  If asked, you couldn’t say whether you were happy or not because you were so completely engrossed.  This “flow” is triggered by different things for each of us.  Seligman talks about it as using your greatest talent in the face of your greatest challenge.

His third element, leading a life of meaning, may involve devoting yourself to a higher cause, a relationship or establishment of community.  We talked about the difficulty of finding community in our busy American culture where friends no longer drop by unannounced and we’re pulled in a million directions.

We talked about hanging onto the wonder a child feels and the joy of anticipation which can fade when you’ve done so much and been so many places.  We also talked about the resiliency some people have when facing illness and loss and where that reserve of positive energy comes from.

We always come away from Asilomar refreshed and looking forward to the year ahead.