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 and publishing fiction, as well as commentary on politics, cultural trends, book reviews and family.

Friday, December 28, 2012

On Being a Writer

After “many a slip twixt the cup and the lip,” my novel One Summer in Arkansas is published and in the hands of a number of readers, some of whom I don’t even know.  It’s enormously exciting and gratifying (thank you, thank you, book buyers) but at the same time the oddest feeling to have people wandering around inside your head, finding meaning in your random thoughts and ramblings.

I started to think seriously about writing when my voice disorder – spasmodic dysphonia – became troublesome enough to get in the way of my lawyering.  Not that I’m so young, but I felt I had to retire too early -- before I was done saying what I had to say.

I wasn’t sure I could put together a cohesive story and by now there’s too much emotional sunk cost there for me to have any idea whether it’s any good or not.

I must say, though, there are two aspects of writing that have been hugely gratifying.  Blogging has been a good outlet for me and I expect it’s something I will continue to do.  It suits my personality to have a little to say about a lot of things and not have to defend my position to anybody.

The other thing about producing this book (and maybe it’s more about publishing it than writing it) is that it really is an entrepreneurial undertaking.  Most of the jobs I’ve done in my life have been safe – safe in the sense that the positions were backed up by a lot of credentials and expertise that wasn’t so easy to come by, and therefore pretty secure.  Writing a book and trying to sell it is anything but safe.  God knows, it’s no way to make money.  The industry is in great turmoil and it’s as wide open as the Wild West, with ebooks and self-publishing and bookstores closing down and Amazon owning the world.

It’s not at all clear that the best work gets read or appreciated and chaos is rampant.  But I’ve had fun creating something from whole cloth and trying to figure out a way to get it out there into the world.  I’m proud of my book and grateful to so many of you who have been kind and supportive of this venture.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Michael Lerner in Praise of the American People

I discovered Rabbi Michael Lerner five years ago when he was promoting his book The Left Hand of God on NPR.  The book came out at a time when the Religious Right was in its ascendency and progressive churchgoers were silent.  Being suspicious of orthodoxy and drawn to contrarians who embrace ideas out of line with their own party, I subscribed to Lerner’s magazine Tikkun and have followed him ever since.

Lerner’s article “In Praise of the American People” is featured on the home page of today’s Huffington Post.

In his post-election analysis, Lerner makes the case that the Republican Party erred in its effort to rally its base against the “other” in our society (the immigrants, the gays, the big government freeloaders, the urban elitists), especially in light of the off-line acknowledgement that such “others” constituted 47% of the population.

At the same time, he rails against Left-wing religiophobia that assumes anyone who believes in God is intellectually stunted, pathologically in need of a father-figure or otherwise unenlightened.

Lerner’s take-away from the election is that the American people are not so locked into their personal financial self-interest as the pundits think.  Sure, we care about jobs and financial security.  But Lerner believes the longing for “a politics of meaning” is stronger than the politicians understand.

“Turns out that Americans, like everyone else on the planet,” says Lerner, “are willing to sacrifice material well-being to serve higher ethical goals, if they think others are willing to do the same.  They are just as hungry for a life, a social order, a family and a community that have some higher meaning…as they are for material economic security.”  

This is a truth about the American character that seems to have eluded the funders of Super-Pacs and the high-priced marketing experts who specialize in negative ads.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What Makes a State Red or Blue?

The post-election punditry is laced with red and blue maps, showing voter preference by state and county.  I’ve started to wonder why it is that the south is so consistently red and the coasts so consistently blue.  What is it about where we live that is so predictive of political preferences?

This was confirmed for me at a recent family wedding.  My siblings and I are divided roughly 50-50 between Democrat and Republican (which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily lead to cordial chatter over cocktails a month before a presidential election).  The family is spread out all over the country now and, while our political parties of choice aren’t perfectly aligned with where we live, the correlation is pretty high.  And yet we were raised in the same house with the same values, all well-educated professionals with similar economic self-interests, and roots in Arkansas.

It’s easy to see how someone who is very poor or a recent immigrant or gay might choose one political party over the other.  There are some real differences in the impact of party platforms on these groups.  But geographic voting patterns are a little harder to explain.  There are poor people and rich people in both Arkansas and California.

There’s no question but that we are influenced by the values and preferences of our friends and neighbors.  And there are some historic reasons for certain regions of the country to have become dominated by one political party or the other.

Democrats like to watch MSNBC and Republicans like to watch Fox because we want to hear from people who affirm what we already believe.  It’s disturbing to listen to the other side’s point of view.  Nobody wants to second guess their own beliefs.

They say more of us are in the middle than at the extremes, and I believe that’s true even though you wouldn’t think so based on what we hear in the news.  If we had four or five active political parties, the way they do in Europe, I think we would be less likely to fall into these polarized camps.

Let’s hope our elected representatives can leave behind their red or blue identifiers in the weeks ahead and find a rational compromise that will avoid the “fiscal cliff” and give the economy a boost.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Demand Courage from Politicians Right and Left

Whoever wins tomorrow’s election, let’s hope they will have the courage to lead the country towards economic solutions that will make better lives for our children and grandchildren.

Neither political party has been courageous enough to demand the sacrifices necessary to cut the deficit and generate renewed economic growth.  They believe we wouldn’t elect them if they told us the truth.

Democrats:  Tell us the hard truth that we have to give up some of our retirement and health care benefits so that something is left for the kids.

Republicans:  Tell us the hard truth that we must pay more in taxes to keep our social structure healthy enough to create a prosperous future for our kids.

It is cowardly of politicians to pander to our self-interest.  It is immoral to ask our legislators to sign oaths not to raise taxes, as if our social contract to one another were a dirty word.  It is deceptive to pander to the demands of special interests who tack on never-ending entitlement costs as if it were our God-given right to live forever.

We can deal with a little hardship, at least if we feel the burden is fairly distributed and our limited resources are being managed carefully.

Tell us the truth.  Tell us what we must sacrifice for the common good.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Hurricanes and Books

We've been without power for several days here in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania where I'm visiting children and grandchildren.  Hurricane Sandy hit a day after I arrived and after the storm ripped dozens of tiles off the roof and took down half the trees in the neighborhood, we're still without power and I'm still trying to get back to California.

The timing is not great since my novel is in the final stages of production and I have a million things I need to be doing in terms of distribution, marketing and approvals.

This is the first day we've had connectivity, tv or showers, thanks to power being restored at Bill's parents' house in Allentown.

Still, with all the inconvenience, we're safe and the time we've had together has been unforgettable.  No school. Long days of cards and other games.  Catch-as-catch-can meals with whatever has just thawed in the ever-warming freezer.  Evenings by flashlight in front of the gas fireplace, making up stories, reading poems and play acting the part of local weatherman.

Truth be told, I needed a break from publication of the book.  All that excitement will come soon enough.  I expect you'll be able to get One Summer in Arkansas from me or my website or from amazon before the end of November.  It may take a couple more weeks before your local bookstore can get it.  But it doesn't hurt to ask.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Remembering Baseball

Guest Blog by Jean Hastings Ardell

Jean Hastings Ardell works as a writer, editor, and memoir instructor in Corona del Mar, California. She frequently writes about baseball and is co-chair of the NINE Spring Training Conference, held each March in Arizona. Her book, Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime, was published in 2005 as part of its Writing Baseball Series by Southern Illinois University Press. The book continues to serve as a text in numerous sport history courses across the country.

A few years back, after the Boston Red Sox had knocked the team we root for, the oxymoronically named Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, out of the post-season playoffs, my husband and I spent a couple of days in deep funk.

            “Aren’t we getting too old for this?” I finally said to him. “Maybe we care too much.”

            “Nah,” came the quick reply. “Besides, look at all the fun we’ve had.”

He was right. Ever since my father brought me to Manhattan’s Polo Grounds to see his beloved New York Giants, I’ve been engaged by this slow-moving, 19th-century game. Baseball permits conversation in ways that more frenetic sports do not. Countless hours have I spent with my father, my husband, who played the game professionally, my sons, and my baseball pals discussing the evils of the New York Yankees, the questionable virtues of the designated hitter rule, the nuances of the infield fly rule…. Conversations that offer respite from the cares of this world.

Baseball nourishes body and soul: (Okay, we know that hot dogs aren’t the healthiest of food choices, but might the dietary gods grant dispensations for ballpark franks? I hope so.) The game actually evolved out of ancient and, in some cases, some fairly earthy, religious rites -- a glimmer of which I see at the beginning of each season in the spring, a time of hope, optimism, rebirth.

Now it’s October, and the Angels didn’t even make it to the playoffs this year. But my dad’s old team, the Giants, now of San Francisco, did and came back in thrilling style after dropping the first two games to the Cincinnati Reds, to make it into the National League Championship Series. Wish he were still around to share the joy. I lamented with my older son that fact that his Atlanta Braves lost in the National League Wild Card one-game playoff. On the other hand, our East Coast friend’s beloved Baltimore Orioles, after fourteen straight losing seasons, have played tough against the Yankees in the American League Division Series. When the Birds won in the twelfth inning last night to tie the series at two-all, I texted our friend, “Mazel tov.”

I can report on all this because this is what I’ve been doing all week: Playing hooky from the cares of work and the political campaigns that so concern me, from all of “real life,” I suppose, to watch baseball’s post-season dramas play out on TV. I’m having a heckuva good time, whether I’m too old for this or not.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Traveling to Europe with Children

We spent a year preparing for this summer’s trip to Europe with all our children and grandchildren, 22 strong.  Ranging in age from 5 to 11, the eight grandchildren had finally reached an age where we thought they could appreciate being in Amsterdam, where Toby and Hinke are raising their family.  Once we had planned five days of Cousin Camp Amsterdam, it was an easy decision to tack on three days in Paris, just a short train ride away.

We thought it was a hugely successful trip and I want to share what we’ve learned.  I hope these tips will be useful if you’re planning to travel with kids.

Travel Preparation:  The key to successful foreign with children is preparation.  If they have not been prepared for the trip, their attention won’t move outside a 10-foot radius of where they are at any given time.  During Cousin Camp 2011 at home, we had a world map, with flagged pushpins bearing each child’s and each adult’s name so we could see where everybody lived and how far it was to where the Amsterdam cousins lived.  Each child also got a postcard with their very own famous Amsterdam painting and a whole year to figure out what the picture was about and to send all of us an email explaining what the artist was trying to show us.  There were children’s versions of the Anne Frank story, a Dutch/English CD from the Amsterdam Sterlings and fill-in-the-blank worksheets about famous landmarks in Amsterdam and Paris.

Public Transportation:  One of our goals was to familiarize the kids with public transportation which they rarely use in our automobile-oriented U.S. culture.  We worked on how to identify bike lanes, pedestrian lanes, tram lines and auto lanes in Amsterdam.  We studied maps of the Paris Metro and prepared the kids for where we would get off and what line numbers and colors to follow for our next transfer.

Lessons with Grandma and Grandpa:  Every day in the late afternoon, we would gather up the children—in a nook in the hotel lobby or spread out on blankets in a park—for a lesson with G&G, usually focused on planned activities for the next day.  We discussed the dangers faced by Hollanders who helped bring food to Anne Frank’s family and analogies between the Nazis and bullying in school.  They learned how to say “Bonjour, Madame” and “Au Revoir, Monsieur” before leaving or after returning to the hotel, much to the delight of our French desk clerks.

Safety:  In our meetings, we practiced what to do if you get separated from the crowd and how to use your green silicon wrist band, bearing the words “Sterling Cousin Camp 2012,” along with Hinke’s cell phone number.

Hotels and Restaurants:  Small European hotel rooms are generally designed for two adults, sometimes with accommodations for a third person.  “Quads” for four people are
common in the big U.S. chains, but you have to look hard to find rooms for four in small European hotels.  But by working through one of the online travel sites like Trip Advisor and specifying Travel with Children, you can find such rooms in child-friendly small hotels.  With a group as big as ours, we couldn’t expect to pop into a nearby cafĂ© or brasserie on the spur of the moment.  We generally had our lunch and dinner spots targeted ahead of time and tended towards family-friendly places our kids knew about in Amsterdam and Paris chains like Hippopotamus or Bistro Romain.

The Schedule:  There’s not much room for spontaneity with a big crowd that includes children.  A schedule with times to meet in the lobby and routes to follow on the tram or metro system will ensure you get to all the places you want to see.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Politics and Football

With the heat of political rhetoric spewing out of the convention halls and the passion of fall football in the air, I can’t help wondering about the source of our all-too-human need to defend our own tribe and to defeat the enemy at our gates.

I’m a sports fan, but I guess you’d call me a fair weather fan because I can ignore the victories and defeats of any of my favorite teams if I’ve been too busy to keep track of them for a while, especially if I don’t recognize many of the current players.  But once I’ve watched a couple of games, something switches inside me and it seems hugely important whether they win or lose.

There is something deep in our DNA that causes us to identify ourselves as part of a tribe.  Guess it goes back to our caveman days when we had to band together to fight off marauders—animal, human and everything in between.

Politics is like that.  When we feel threatened by a political group out to defeat our favorite candidates, the adrenaline starts flowing and we’re ready to pull out the old club to defend our brood.

I’m not saying this tribal instinct is good or bad.  I don’t think we could do anything to change it even if we wanted to.  But it’s worth remembering that the people in the other tribe have the same instinct toward self-preservation and the same visceral adrenaline response when they feel their village is about to be attacked.

The woods are going to be filled with Neanderthals between now and November 6th. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lance Armstrong and Doping

Coming on the heels of several Major League Baseball suspensions, Lance Armstrong’s tacit admission to use of performance enhancing drugs during his spectacular cycling career has led to a massive media condemnation of cheaters.

Use of terms like “cheaters” and “cheating” appears to be favored by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which probably hired the same marketing experts who train our political candidates—experts in the use of inflammatory words to frame issues in a certain light in the public consciousness.

It’s hard to argue against the effort by professional sports organizations to do what they can to eliminate use of these steroids and hormones, which have serious health implications for the athletes later in life.  But the bitterness and acrimony towards these “cheaters” who are trying to get ahead at risk of their health strikes me as over the top.

In baseball, many of the players who have tested positive are young men from extremely poor families in Latin America who are risking everything for a chance to make enough money to help their families achieve some security.  And, it’s not as if these athletes haven’t continued to work hard to improve their natural talent.

The idea of a level playing field is a fantasy.  Most exceptional athletes had the good luck to be born with physical capabilities that permit them to excel at sports, probably including naturally high levels of testosterone.  We don’t penalize basketball players, after all, for their unfair advantage of being born tall.  Or the son of a professional athlete whose dad can afford to buy a batting cage for the backyard when the boy turns six.

What if we decided to level the playing field for college admission by prohibiting wealthy families from sending their kids to SAT prep classes or hiring consultants to work with them on their essays?

I’m not arguing against better and more frequent drug testing.  But I just don’t go along with subjecting these guys to public humiliation and shame for their bad judgment.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Will You Support the President in 2013?

Depends who’s elected, you’re probably thinking to yourself. 

But, think about it.  Supporting a president you voted for is just getting what you want.  It doesn’t say anything about your commitment to a better future for our country.

I don’t mean to dismiss your heartfelt belief that one candidate is better than the other.  We should all do our best to understand the issues and decide who we want to support.  Then we should fight for what we believe in—speak out, work the precincts and contribute money if we can.

But the concept of a “loyal opposition” stands for the proposition that we can continue to work towards the type of government we want without demeaning the presidency and the country by attributing wickedness, stupidity or illegitimacy to the winner of the election.

When I was on executive staff of a Fortune 1000 company, the CEO had a rule.  Important decisions about the company’s direction (which product lines to pursue and which to drop, whether to restructure reporting lines of major units, etc.) would be made one of two ways: (i) exec staff consensus or (ii) CEO edict.  When exec staff was trying to reach consensus on one of these important decisions, people would fight like cats and dogs for their preferred outcome.  But the CEO had a rule:  Once the decision was made, everybody must agree not to sabotage it by complaining to their staff, delaying implementation or putting up road blocks.

I wish our American democracy had a rule like that.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Cousin Camp 2012

Just returned from Cousin Camp Amsterdam, with a three-day finale in Paris.  Our big family of 14 adults and 8 children from 5 to 11.  So many highlights…

In Amsterdam, the block party at Toby and Hinke’s, Parents’ Night Out, Anne Frank, a sign for Grandma and Grandpa engineered by Hinke and visible from the Westerkerk tower, Nemo and the ship, a side trip to Madurodam, the wonderful canal boat trip hosted by Hinke’s parents Riky and Lambert, Vondelpark, Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum.

In Paris, climbing the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sainte Chappelle, cafes, Montmartre, pony rides in the Luxembourg Gardens, learning to ride the Metro and the long walk back to the hotel through the Tuileries Gardens and down the Champs Elysees, where the Arc de Triomphe was visible from our hotel.

But mainly it was about the family being together and the shared experience.  Three lost baby teeth, lessons every afternoon with G&G about the next day’s adventures, serious shopping with euros earned from online math lessons from the Kahn Academy,  all eight of them learning to say “Bonjour, Madame” or “Au revoir, Monsieur” to the desk clerks as we left the Paris hotel.

Precious memories.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Marilynne Robinson on Culture and Religion

In an age when secularism and intellectualism are twin watchtowers against the encroachment of religious values into American politics, noted writer and scholar Marilynne Robinson provides both a defense and a critique of the role of religion in modern life in When I Was a Child I Read Books.

Known primarily for her fiction—Homecoming, Gilead and Home, all critically acclaimed—she has released a series of essays on American culture, politics and religion that reflect her exceptional insight and intellect.

Robinson’s principal thesis is that modern American life has been dumbed down and diminished not only by corrosive politics, materialism and marginalization of education, but also by turning our backs on all things sacred and beautiful, “everything in any way lofty.”  She blames both the secularists and the churches for this. 

She describes religious faith as something other than “a crude, explanatory strategy that should be supplanted by science” and argues that science and religion “should not be struggling for the same piece of turf.”

“Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word ‘soul’ and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit.”

Positing that “the language of public life has lost the character of generosity and the largeness of spirit that created the best of our institutions,” she makes the case for religion as a way to disrupt the constraints of “grasping materialism.” 

 “I realized gradually that my own religion, and religion in general, could and should disrupt [these] constraints, which amount to a small and narrow definition of what human beings are and how life is to be understood.”

In describing the soul as “the masterpiece of creation,” Robinson makes a cogent case for the importance of religion, like art and music, as a path to wisdom and to understanding the beauty and mystery of life.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Commentary on "Why Women Still Can't Have It All"

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” has engendered renewed discussion and debate about the conflicting roles women try to play as business leaders and mothers.   The issues are not new, but each successive generation of women is surprised by the obstacles faced in the workplace and at home as they try to meet these all-consuming, competing demands.

Truth is, men can’t “have it all” either.   The human animal has only so many hours a day and only so much energy.  Sure, some people are better multi-taskers, some need less sleep, some have prodigious memories or masterful organizational skills.  But even those people have to make choices. 

We’ve added another third to our life expectancy over the last hundred years, but we are still expected to squeeze all the critical work into the second quarter of our lives:  establishing a career, buying a house, having babies, raising the kids, saving for retirement.  We need to find a way to spread out some of those responsibilities over a longer period, so that we can focus more of our time on raising kids during one decade, but still freely return to the workplace with a chance to succeed at a high level a decade later.  The idea that you must establish yourself professionally by the time you’re 40 or 45, when many of us will live to be a hundred, is ridiculous.

We can’t have it all, at least not simultaneously, but there are enough productive decades in our lives to enable us to focus on a career, or the children, for five or ten years, without being locked out of opportunities later on.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

On Southern Fiction and IPOs

I celebrated the 4th of July by taking one more step towards the finish line.  One Summer in Arkansas is on track to launch before the beginning of December.

While Nat did all the work to prepare our annual 4th of July barbeque, I reviewed the last suggested changes from the copyeditor, one of the least painful steps in the process—just check “Accept Change” or “Reject Change” and Microsoft does the rest.  At this point we’re down to the classic debate about whether or not serial commas have any place in modern literature.  This is when everybody reverts to their 6th grade personality, since that’s when we learned our grammar, and at this stage of life we’re not about to deviate from what our 6th grade teacher taught us.  I can remember fighting the same fight in the middle of the night at many a financial printer during my life as a lawyer—a room full of entrepreneurs, lawyers, accountants and investment bankers sitting around a conference table at 2:00 a.m., eating junk food and arguing (in a 6th grade tone of voice) about whether serial commas belong in the prospectus for the IPO hitting the market the next day. 

Some things never change.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Another Culture War: Old vs. Young

We hear a lot about the cultural divide in this country, but less about the divergence of common interest between ourselves and our children.

David Leonhardt in his New York Times article “Old vs. Young” points out that the wealth gap between people over 65 and people under 35 is the largest it has been since they have recorded that statistic.  Over the last decade, the income level of people between 55 and 64 has remained about the same, while it has decreased by 11% for people between the ages of 25 and 35.

Older people benefit from a variety of policies that protect assets and ensure continuation of Social Security and Medicare.  Younger people benefit from funding programs likely to benefit society in the future—things like education, research, environmental controls.

Along with all else we consider in making our political choices, we should try to anticipate how current policies will impact the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Obamacare Upheld

So funny to listen to CNN this morning where they totally misread the opinion and announced to the world that the Individual Mandate had been struck down.  They had to backpedal when they realized that the entire act was upheld (the Individual Mandate was upheld under the Government's taxing authority rather than the Commerce Clause), with the one exception that the States can decline to accept the expansion of Medicaid in their own states.  Roberts sided with the liberals, but managed to keep from expanding the Commerce Clause for future cases.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cousin Camp 2012: Amsterdam and Paris

Cousin Camp, our annual gathering of the children and grandchildren, has always been held at our house, where we’ve got space for floor beds and enough yard for treasure hunts, swimming and a stage for the kids’ plays.  This summer we’re going on the road: five nights in Amsterdam, where Toby and family live, then by train to Paris for the last three nights.

Planning a trip for our clan of twenty-two, eight of whom are under age twelve, has been logistically challenging.  But we’ve finally found hotels and restaurants that can accommodate us and a full schedule of activities suitable for children.

See Cousin Camp: Making Family Memories for the Grandchildren for ideas on how to start your own Cousin Camp.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

It's Only Money

Studies have shown that money doesn’t correlate very well with happiness.

Why is it then that so much of our life energy goes into making it and keeping it?  And why does money continue to drive so many of our personal decisions and political initiatives?

Granted, extreme poverty can stifle the pleasure of being alive. And, financial mismanagement by individuals, corporations or governments can burden families and impoverish future generations.

But money is a woefully inadequate solution to broken lives and lack of community.  Most people are driven to work hard and succeed because of their personal values, including the satisfaction from doing a good job.  Tax policy doesn’t do anything to change that.

American political dogma, from both sides of the aisle, continues to place too much emphasis on the power of the almighty dollar.  The Right is convinced we encourage sloth by lending a hand, even in the face of the most pressing need, while the Left is sure all problems can be solved by throwing money at them. 

If we are to prevail as a society in which our grandchildren can thrive, we need to commit to programs for the common good but remain cynical about the inefficiencies of bureaucracy and mindful of the limitations of money to solve problems.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

One Possible Answer to "What's Ailing Google Chief?"

There are a number of possible causes of Larry Page’s hoarse, strained voice, some of them (like polyps or a paralyzed vocal cord) are physiological and some (like muscle tension dysphonia) can be caused by overuse or misuse of the voice.  Spasmodic dysphonia, an involuntary spasming of the vocal cords, causing speech to become effortful, strained or broken, is a neurological disorder of unknown cause that affects speech in mid-life.  See my Idea Box on "Living with a Broken Voice."

Thursday, June 21, 2012

When 1 + 1 = 0 in the Media

Over the past decade, the U.S. media—print, television, radio—has adopted a puzzling convention to report on complex subjects.

They seek out two experts on opposite sides of an issue, presumably in the interest of balance, and let them duke it out, generally in a personally offensive manner.

I’ve wondered whether our journalists borrowed this idea from the legal profession, since it’s the method used to argue cases in court, or whether it derived from some random Ph.D. thesis that gradually gained traction in journalism grad schools.

In any case, it isn’t working.  The smartest people realize they don’t have all the answers and that’s how they keep learning.  The kinds of experts who never doubt their own orthodoxy generally aren’t worth listening to.

What a pleasure it would be to hear a commentator admit that the big problems of our time are hard to fix and that he’s not completely sure which way we should go to try to improve things. 

Now, that would be an expert worth listening to.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Status of the Novel

It has been less than a month since I blogged about how to get my book published, and now I am on a path to realizing that goal.  The final manuscript of One Summer in Arkansas is in the hands of a publisher, with a target launch date of November 15th.

Over the last year, I have learned quite a bit about digital print-on-demand self-publishing, which has become a legitimate and efficient way to bring a book to market.  But ultimately I wasn’t satisfied with the materials available in digital publishing.  I was also concerned that the POD business model required a price-per-book too high to compete with established writers of fiction.

I made modest efforts to find an agent and publisher, but those doors are pretty tightly closed to new fiction.

I have finally found a solution that works for me.  The book will be self-published in the sense that I’ll bear the upfront costs, do my own marketing and keep the profit.  But I’m working through a publisher to get the offset print quality I want, using traditional methods and materials.

It’s a tough challenge to enter the market for print fiction these days, but it has been great fun to learn a new line of business and I’m excited to see what I can do with it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Let's Talk about the Economy

There are two opposite theories about how to get out of the economic doldrums we find ourselves in:  Austerity and Stimulus.  The debate is not just within the U.S. or between Republicans and Democrats.  All over the world, government officials and citizens are arguing about which of the two theories is right.

The Austerity solution is favored by conservatives, who argue that we should take our lumps today in hopes of a better future tomorrow.  This position focuses on spending less and cutting the debt, on the theory that the debt overhang inhibits future economic growth with risks of default, inflation or higher taxes.  The Austerity solution is supposedly hardest on working people who may lose jobs and young people who can’t find them, and better for people who have accumulated savings and wealth.  

The Stimulus solution is favored by liberals, who argue that economic activity creates jobs, even if debt results from the spending.  Proponents of Stimulus argue that if we stop spending to cut the debt, we’ll enter a downward spiral where economic activity is very low.  The Stimulus solution is supposedly hardest on people who have accumulated wealth already, since it adds to the debt and may portend future default or inflation or higher taxes, but better in the near term for people looking for jobs and people working in the public sector.

Because our political discourse in this country is so dysfunctional, it’s virtually impossible to get a balanced perspective on these two arguments.  Economists are as polarized as anybody else and it’s hard to find people in the middle who can analyze these positions fairly.  Apparently both Austerity and Stimulus have a role to play in trying to resolve our current financial woes.

Most experts agree that the slow economy is not going away anytime soon.  These cycles develop over decades, through many different administrations, and resolve equally slowly.  It’s unlikely that next fall’s election will make a difference one way or the other.  Having a grown-up discussion among ourselves, however, would be a step in the right direction.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Health Care Act Goes to the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court decision on health care will be announced soon.  The case was decided by preliminary vote in closed session right after the oral arguments in March, and since then the justices and their clerks have been busily writing the opinion that will become the law of the land.

The outcome of this case is important not only because it is so politically charged, but because health care constitutes almost 20% of our national economy.  Health care costs, as a percentage of GDP, are several times greater in the U.S. than in any other developed country, and growing exponentially, so our grandchildren’s prosperity depends on getting it right.

The Idea Box on the right side of this blog contains an outline of a presentation on health care that we put together for a retreat at Asilomar in January.  A video of our reprise at OLLI in Medford, Oregon last month may be viewed at:

The presentation was intended to be balanced and was based upon a review of books and opinions on both sides of the issue.  After discussing the context of the problem, Nat and I took separate sides and played the roles of opposing counsel in a reprise of the oral arguments made by opponents and proponents of the Act before the Supreme Court.

Whatever the outcome of this case and irrespective of personal political preferences, the country needs to pull together to protect the aspects of our system that are working, but to find ways to cut costs and improve access.  Otherwise the physical and fiscal health of future generations is at risk.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Call for a New Literary Genre: Older Adult Fiction

The hottest market for novels these days is a category called Young Adult Fiction.  Most agents and publishers, even those who are closed to new submissions, are seeking out YA manuscripts.

Science Fiction, Fantasy and Romance, all established genres in their own right, are featured prominently in Young Adult novels. The YA category implies an interplay of those categories with Internet-age speed, cryptic use of language (as in texting), edgy plots and non-conventional sequencing. 

The consumers of YA Fiction have little tolerance for exposition, their lives having been shaped by screen time, so these books are often indistinguishable from screen plays or film scripts.  And, since the readers are computer-savvy, social media-oriented and mobile, there is a strong preference for electronic content.

So pervasive is the fascination with the YA genre that its elements are increasingly finding their way into general fiction.  Books with obscure plots, interconnected stories within stories, cartoon-sketch characters and disturbing realism are often favored by book reviewers, who are drawn to anything unique and virtuosic.

But, as the Baby Boomers expand the ranks of older Americans, it is the Older Adult category that makes up the fastest growing demographic among consumers of books.  As the Boomers move from career to retirement, they will have more time to read.  At this point, the OAs are the last hold-outs in traditional bookstores, active in book groups and migrating to electronic books on a slower track than their juniors.

Because the OA category is so broad and growing so rapidly, there has not been an easy way to get a handle on their preferences in fiction.  Older adults have tended to buy paperbacks on the New Arrivals table in bookstores or whatever is atop the New York Times Bestseller List, though their satisfaction with the literature they are consuming is more nuanced.

If the publishing industry could be a fly-on-the-wall in OA book groups, they might be surprised at the level of frustration with the stunningly unique new books that come out to great fanfare, but slip right back off the charts as quickly as they came.  There is a palpable longing for stories with depth and coherence, tales that tap into universal themes, conclusions that leave the reader satisfied instead of confused.

Most commercial enterprises in the free market economy today are tuned in to the expanding OA demographic, with vendors of food and condos and clothing accommodating to the tastes of this large population of Older Adults with money and time on their hands.  I wonder if booksellers, publishers, agents and writers are paying attention.  

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

David Brooks, The Social Animal

David Brooks’ The Social Animal is a dense book, packed with data, which may keep it from being an overwhelming commercial success.  That’s too bad because it contains much that it worth reading.

Brooks attempts to teach us about the importance of relationships through a story that is purportedly fiction, following the lives of several people from birth to death.  The characters, it turns out, are props to demonstrate various research findings about the human species, along with Brooks’ ever-insightful views about our culture.

I’m not sure the device of demonstrating psychological and sociological research insights through these characters’ lives works very well.  It probably should have been five or six books instead of one. 

Still, of the various non-fiction I’ve read recently, I keep turning to episodes from this book when talking to friends about ideas.  I don’t always agree with David Brooks’ bottom line, but I’ve never read anything he wrote that didn’t have something of truth and substance in it.

Here are some takeaways from The Social Animal:

Although people are often measured by external achievements (What’s your job?  Where did you go to school?), it’s the choices we make based on intuition and instinct that are more likely to determine our happiness and the measure of our lives (Who did you marry? What do you believe in?).

Research recited in the book on child development, education, careers, human sexuality, marriage and aging supports Brooks’ theory that the human animal is shaped essentially by relationships.

Particularly elegant is his debunking of our culture’s misguided overreliance on data to drive economic and political decisions and on money to solve problems, making a strong case for the superiority of the human mind over the computer.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Should I Self-Publish?

I finished a rough draft of my first novel about a year ago.  Since that time, it has inched along, dutifully slogging through its life cycle of reviews, rewrites, feedback, rewrites, comments, rewrites, professional edits, rewrites. 

The question now is this.  Do I select a digital print-on-demand self-publishing company and put my book out there, hoping the world will find it, or do I take the longer traditional route of seeking an agent and hoping to be picked up by an established publishing house?

I’ve thought from the beginning I would self-publish.  The book publishing industry is under stress.  The new digital technologies are getting better.  You can get a print-on-demand book out faster and cheaper and, if you’re successful, keep more of the proceeds.

True, you have to sell it yourself, but that seems to be the case these days even if you have a publisher.

But here’s the thing.  There are still advantages to having a traditional publisher.  For one, digital books don’t look as good as offset print books.  The covers are glossy and lighter weight than paperbacks printed by the big houses.  They are getting better, for sure, but you can tell. 

This wouldn’t be so much of a problem, were it not for the fact that too many books of poor quality have hit the market.  If you have a publisher, people at least assume a certain level of competence. 

Does that mean traditional publishing has become the new vanity publishing?

I don’t think I can wait another year to have a book in my hand. 

So we’ll see.

Friday, May 25, 2012

New Blog

The life of a writer is a solitary business, but we are fortunate to live in an age when electronic interconnectedness lets us tap into the experiences of other writers and of people who love books.

I hope this blog will give me a window into the community of writers struggling to bring their stories and ideas to life in the face of stunningly new ways to consume information.

I also want to introduce you to the Idea Boxes on this blog page—my way to pass along some of the ideas that have made our family’s life more interesting.

Cousin Camp is our family’s annual summer gathering.  It has evolved into a structured “camp” for the grandchildren and you may find some ideas there to make your own family reunions more meaningful.

The Health Care Act is much in the news these days.  This is a presentation we put together for our New Year’s retreat at Asilomar.  We think it’s a balanced view of the problem and of the case before the Supreme Court, with a focus on why costs keep climbing so fast in U.S. health care and the difficulties in trying to reform the system.

We like social events that have a little structure to them and you’ll see that in the descriptions of how to set up a Robert Burns Dinner or a Bridge Group.

Thanks for your interest and for taking the time to comment.