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, 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.