Monday, December 26, 2011

What Ron Paul's Libertarianism Really Means

Over the next few days, and for too many days afterward, especially if he wins the Iowa caucuses, you may hear a lot about Ron Paul's crazier views. You will probably learn more about the racism in his newsletters (newsletters he now disavows, but used to brag about), his belief that there is a secret U.N. conspiracy to take over the United States, and maybe even his statement that the U.S. shouldn't have intervened to stop the holocaust. What you might not hear about are his most fundamental libertarian views. They are less dramatic, but, in a way, they are far more important, and not just because they clearly disqualify him for the presidency; so do all those other bright-hot-embers of crazy. But start paying attention to his particular breed of libertarianism, known by some within his own movement as paleolibertrianism or paleoconservatism. Here's an example that jumps out at me. Listen to what Ron Paul says about education:

Here's where the rubber meets the road: In one way, he's correct. If we're talking about natural rights, education and healthcare do not qualify. Animals in the wild do not get any public education. The government does not need to provide education in order to be preserving the basic rights of life, liberty, and property that a government must defend in order to be legitimate. But rights should not be limited in that way. Rights can also be conferred upon individuals by a society because the society recognizes these are not only in the best interest of the individual (privileges) but also in the best interest of every other individual in the society. Rights, like language, are social constructs, and we are human beings. We do not need to limit ourselves to the same list of rights protected by chieftains in caves. We can choose to do better.

Paul's example is a perfect illustration of this faulty reasoning by paleolibertarians. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but he seems to be saying one of two things. Either government intervention has driven the inflation in the cost of education which now makes medical school inaccessible for "poor" people (i.e. all but the wealthiest few), and if we just got government out, the price would return to the manageable $300 a semester Paul mentions. Or he recognizes that the cost would still stay out of reach for "poor" people (just about everybody), but that the notion that an IRS agent would take away your hard-earned cash is such an unbearable injustice that it must be done away with, no matter the consequences.

Now, I don't for a minute believe that the cost of medical school would ever return to $300 a semester (or even something similar but adjusted for standard inflation) just because the government stopped giving loans. Sure, medical schools might have to close their doors, but they couldn't prepare people to be real, modern doctors for a few thousand dollars. But even if that were possible in the long run, for a period of indeterminate time (perhaps a generation?) the 99% of us who don't have the quarter million dollars medical school costs on top of the 100k a private undergraduate education costs would simply not be able to become doctors.

So, imagine Ron Paul's America: the (horror of horrors) IRS would not be able to take your tax money and give it to some poor kid who would use it, in the form of subsidized loans, to go through college and medical school and become your doctor. Yea! You've saved some money, and you haven't participated in the historic evil known as taxation. How grand. But then, when you need some surgery, you go to your local hospital and find out that there simply aren't enough doctors to keep up with the workload. Uh-oh. This isn't pleasant. Still, you have all that extra tax money you saved. Go home and enjoy that while the tumor metastasizes. But when you finally get through the waiting list, guess what? The guy who will be performing the surgery on your brain? Well, he's just not as good as you would want him to be. You see, there were ten people who could have been better, but they didn't get the necessary education because there were no federally subsidized loans to get them through school. This guy, on the other hand, had multimillionaire parents who could pay the tuition out of pocket. So you get a neurosurgeon who, in a pre-Ron Paul world, would have been the tenth best in the hospital, and now he's cutting into your brain.

Education is not a natural right, and you don't have a natural right to a decent doctor, either. But if we have the right to self-government, then that means we have the right to make choices about what we want for our own society. And if that should include creating a meritocracy capable of producing the absolute best doctors we can so that when we need them we have access to the best of the best, then we have the right to make that country for ourselves. In Ron Paul's world, a certain kind of liberty was maximized for the man on the slab in the basement. He's dead young and unnecessarily, but he wasn't forced to give money to the IRS. That is not the world you and I want to live in (and die young in).

Ron Paul, despite his most incendiary beliefs, is doing our nation a service by forcing us to have a conversation about the amount of liberty we're willing to give up in order to improve our society. This is a vital debate to have, because there is always the danger that we can go to far, or go in the wrong direction, creating a police state in order to feel safe or a control economy in order to know we'll be provided for. We should talk about how to make the best possible decisions to maximize liberty while not creating a nightmare world; all liberty and no community. But don't let any paleolibertarian or paleoconservative fool you into believing this debate is simple black and white. Don't let them tell you what the government doesn't have the right to do.

This is a democracy, or at least it should be. As long as we still have power to influence our government, we get to decide how much we want it to intrude into our lives, and how much the benefits of that intrusion outweigh the inconvenience. Our government has the rights we give it, and no more. We have the right to choose the nature of our society. All rights, even the natural ones, are rights we've had to earn back from unjust governments. They are our social constructs.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that every child has a right to a free and appropriate education, regardless of their race, disabilities, home language, or citizenship. Ron Paul can disagree with the court. That's his right, too. What Ron Paul can't do is unilaterally decide what your rights are or the government's rights are. He can tell you what he thinks they should be (and I think he should have the right to say so). But remember, when he says something isn't a right, what he's really saying is that he doesn't think our society should have that thing in abundance. So if you, like me, are in the bottom 99%, he's really saying things like education and high quality medical care shouldn't be available to you. Once you know how to read through the veil of political philosophy, he really sounds more like this guy:

No healthcare for YOU!

No education for YOU!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Abraham Lincoln Occupied Wall Street

I'd never seen this before, but this is an excerpt of a speech President Lincoln gave 150 years ago today to a joint session of Congress. Want to know what the Occupy Movement is all about? Abraham Lincoln knew 150 years ago.

"It is not needed, nor fitting here [in discussing the Civil War] that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions; but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effect to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor, in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded thus far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

“Now, there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

Can someone, anyone, who is more concerned with the plight of labor and with promoting the general welfare of We the People please run for President? (And I'm sorry, President Obama, but just because you're more concerned about working people than the Republican train-wreck-of-a-field does not mean you give higher consideration to labor than capital. Not after 7 trillion to the banks.)

Or will I need a time machine so I can vote for someone as progressive as a guy who's been dead for 146 years?

Help me, Doc Brown!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Petty political attacks aren't a big deal in-and-of themselves. They go both ways, and sometimes they're funny. But this week alone I've come across a couple that just knock my socks off. First, there was the "Obama doesn't mention God on Thanksgiving" hullabaloo on Fox. (*Check out Jon Stewart's reaction to that below.) And then, a conservative friend of mine named Derek called my attention to this one: "Another Gaffe? Obama Calls British Embassy ‘English’ Embassy" Derek actually called me out for not posting it to my status on Facebook, as though I was too ashamed to share it. Quite the opposite. As I told Derek, this is a great illustration of just how petty the Right has become. Now, like I said, the pettiness goes both ways at times, but the context is important here. This is the kind of ridiculous criticism of the President that's coming out of the Right at the exact same time that congressional Republicans are shooting down legislation to create thousands of good jobs for Americans. Moreover, the proposed jobs bills are actually paid for, something the modern Republican party likes to preach but hasn't practiced in my lifetime. So what's their beef? The bills would raise taxes by a couple percentage points on people who earn more than a million dollars a year. Note, this is on their income. It cannot make rich people poor, because it is only calculated on the next MILLION dollars they make. (Oops. I got that wrong. It's actually even less than that. Millionaires would not pay an added two percent on their income, only on their income after the first million dollars. In other words, 1st million at current, historically low rates, 2nd and 3rd million at rates still lower than they were under Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. Oh, and since the jobs bill was broken up, this portion is the part that provides a payroll tax holiday for working people. Historically, Republicans have treated any vote against cutting taxes as a tax hike. If that's the case, then they are refusing to hike taxes on millionaires but, by their logic, are hiking taxes on everybody else. Where does Grover Norquist stand on that?)

Ah, the Republicans tell us, but that will prevent these wealthy people from giving the rest of us jobs. Well, they haven't been doing that when they are making a million dollars. Why is it assumed they would stop doing what they aren't doing because they're miffed about a small tax increase? Isn't it possible that, if the rest of us do better, then buy products from the companies owned by the rich, making them a heck of a lot richer, they'll create more jobs than if they dodge a tiny tax increase?

Republicans love to toss around the word "entitlement" to criticize people who expect to receive benefits like Medicare and Social Security which they have paid for through through their taxes during a lifetime of work. They also like to vilify any attempt by the government to "pick winners and losers." Well guess what, folks: tax breaks for the rich are government handouts just as much as welfare checks, and they cost the rest of us a lot more than keeping a family from starving to death. Choosing to line the pockets of millionaires rather than creating more positions for firefighters and police officers is "picking winners and losers." Anybody who gives this even a few seconds thought can see that.

So the Republicans are trying to make sure you don't give it a couple seconds thought. They'd much rather you count the number of times the President mentions God, or laugh at him for mixing up "British" and "English."

Petty political pot-shots are fun, especially when they are funny. But in this case, they're not only lame, but obvious distractions meant to focus our attention away from what the Republicans are actually trying to do to those of us who don't make a million dollars a-

*Jon Stewart on the "Much Ado About Stuffing" scandal:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Much Ado About Stuffing
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Update to Alan Grayson for President

I posted about how much I appreciate a true progressive speaking out. Here's a clip from one of Grayson's recent speeches. Check it out:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Writer's Quest for Quality

I love the Demotivators from Tonight, while gathering my thoughts before beginning Chapter 9 of my current novel [read: Procrastinating] I came across this one on another writer's blog (Lily White LeFevre's blog, here) and just had to re-post it. Okay, enough procrastinating. Let's get marching!

Friday, November 11, 2011


I ran away from home when I was five years old. I didn’t return for almost thirty years.

Upon the arrival of my little brother, our tiny house seemed to shrink, and my parents started looking for something with a bit more room for the brave little crawler. Once they’d found the new house and boxed up our belongings, they began the move. I have few memories of the day. For some reason, I felt neglected. Maybe they were more focused on getting our furniture situated. Maybe I resented the attention my brother was demanding. Maybe I’d only recently learned that running away was an option. Who knows? Regardless, at some point I decided to strike out on my own, never to return.

I think I walked around the block. I distinctly remember that, when I returned, no one had noticed I’d left. I also remember my mother’s pitying look when I told her I’d run away, a sympathetic smile that hid amusement at my dramatic ploy for attention. I was so wounded that they had forgotten about me. She could see my pain, but couldn’t help but see it in a way I couldn’t. That larger perspective made my pain funny.

We moved away a few years later. Six cities and fifteen residences later, I passed through that town on the way to a friend’s wedding. I found the little house where we’d lived at first, and I tried to find the second. The first house created absolutely no impression on me upon its rediscovery, and the second house was so lost to memory that I couldn’t even find the street.

Twenty-nine years had passed. I was almost exactly as old as my parents had been the day I ran away. They’d never lost me. Not really. But there I was, sitting in a borrowed car, looking at a little house, wondering if there was a German word for the disappointment one feels upon returning to a place after many years to find that it is not as one remembers it. They hadn’t lost me. I’d lost myself.

Now I’m struck by the symmetry. I left that day for perhaps twenty minutes, and no one noticed. Then I left for three decades, and no one noticed. I thought they’d forgotten about me, but during the longer wandering, I forgot about that part of myself. When I returned, my mother was able to see it in a broader way, to see the absurdity of it. That stung when I was five. Now it’s a comfort. Because she could look beyond my perspective; she could see me for what I was: a five-year-old drama queen.

So often, I feel unmoored, place-less, a man who repels belonging. I wonder if I can learn to stand just a few steps away, to look down at my own hackneyed melancholy and wear my mother’s smile.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Today I attended a meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, put on at H.B.Lee Middle School in the Reynolds School District outside Portland. The event was organized by the Oregon Education Association. The intention was to share some of our frustrations with the Secretary and hear his plans as they related to those concerns. In that, I’d say we were halfway successful.

300 educators packed one side of the school’s gym while the string orchestra played. There were 25 or so kids playing, and they were quite good. At the time, we didn’t know that was a kind of foreshadowing, because we were in for a virtuoso performance of a different kind, this one in evasion.

When Duncan came into the room, I was immediately struck by his height, and turned to my friend Jason Foltz, our OEA regional rep with whom I’d carpooled, and made a crack about how I expected Duncan was pretty good at basketball, and that was probably what got him the job in Obama’s cabinet.

Steve Novak, a former senatorial candidate and current candidate for a position on the Portland City Council, moderate the event, and gave a very brief introduction, sharing some information about the situation in which Oregon educators find ourselves. One revealing fact: In our 07-09 biennium, education was budgeted $6.3 billion by the legislature (before they cut into that). In the 09-11 biennium, we were budgeted $5.7 (before they cut into that). That’s a pretty dramatic drop-off, especially in the face of all kinds of new requirements coming down from the federal government during that time.

Then Novak introduced Secretary Duncan. He shared that Duncan had worked for seven years as the head of Chicago public schools, and that he’d previously played professional basketball. He then stole my joke, which I’m sure was entirely original when I said it. Novak also politely refrained from mentioning that Duncan has never worked as a classroom teacher.

Duncan then spoke for a moment. He acknowledged that it’s a tough time in education, and that school funding is the lowest it’s been in twenty, forty, sixty years (I suppose it has to do with how you make the calculation). He also said kids have more temptations outside of school. His interest, he told us, was in finding out how the Department of Ed. could best support us. He admitted that NCLB is broken, that it was too punitive, and that Congress was to blame for not fixing it. He promised waivers as a stop-gap since we can’t depend on Congress to fix NCLB. His interest is in working collaboratively with states, then in getting out of their way when they are doing well. I was particularly interested when he mentioned working with states to come up with creative methods to evaluate teacher performance, since I’m very skeptical about reform efforts that start with teacher evaluation and assume they’ll figure out the definition of “better teacher” later on, after they’ve measured it. He didn’t elaborate, though.

He also tied his listening tour in with the President’s push for the Jobs Act, which received applause. He described the effect the act would have here in Oregon, including $351 million for teacher retention which would employ an additional 2000 teachers, and $240 million for capital improvements which would fix dilapidated schools while providing a boost to employment. He was also very pleased with the $500 million the act would give the state in money for Early Childhood Education.

Once Duncan was finished, Novak introduced three storytellers who were chosen to explain the state of education in Oregon as it manifested in their personal experience. The first teacher, Sarah Williams, a math teacher from a community college, talked about the federal emphasis on degree completion, and how it was misaligned with the needs of many community college students. She described students who needed to pick up a few courses for work, those who transferred to four year institutions before completing their AAs, and those who received jobs before completing their AAs and chose to go directly to work in their fields. She asked the Secretary how the feds could penalize the community colleges when these students’ needs were so obviously being met.

The second storyteller, Cindy Johnson, is an Early Intervention Specialist. She works with disabled children who haven’t started kindergarten yet, helping them learn to cope with their disabilities to give them a good start when they begin school. As she explained to the Secretary, when new money is poured into Early Childhood Education programs like Headstart, although that is certainly a good thing, it makes those children eligible for Early Intervention help, even though those programs haven’t been given any new money, creating a crisis in their part of the system. She described kids with needs that were not being met because their teachers were now stretched so thin and have caseloads so large, they can’t provide the vital services they used to be able to provide.

Then an elementary classroom teacher named Joyce (I didn’t catch her last name) talked about how, when she began teaching, she was encouraged to avoid core content for the first month just to create a community of learners, but now she’s run her students through three standardized tests in the first month alone. The students are then color coded and divided into groups right down to the individual question they may get wrong, so they can be given specific instruction preparing them for specific questions. The number of minutes they spend sitting at their desks are measured so there’s no longer time to marry learning to movement. Students used to love independent reading, but now, if they score too low on standardized tests, they are taken out of their independent reading groups and put in remedial reading programs. These students now tell her, “I hate reading.” Joyce told the Secretary, “This is what No Child Left Behind has done to our schools.” The applause was deafening. She explained that we are now punished for things over which we have no control instead of being celebrated for our successes. Not only are students’ rich educations being left behind, but teachers are being left behind as well. “I would ask you, Mr. Duncan, to remove the business model from education and remember we are working with children, not interchangeable parts.”

When the applause died down again, Novak introduced educators who had specific questions for Duncan. The first questioner explained that public school teachers were out in front, supporting the charter school movement, back when we thought those would be models of innovation but would still be accountable to the public for their use of public funds. In light of the fact that 80% of charter schools are no better than their local public schools, and many are worse, she asked him to defend the push to increase for-profit and internet-based charter schools that take resources away from traditional public schools. Duncan said he did not support “drop-out factories.” He talked about some charter schools that have been very effective, but recognized that when there’s no accountability for these schools it’s a “recipe for mediocrity.” He did not talk about any method or interest in putting accountability measures in place.

The next teacher, Colleen Works, didn’t mention that she was our state’s teacher of the year. (I only know because she carpooled with Jason and I, and he bragged about her.) She’s a high school history teacher from Corvallis, and explained that she has 190 kids a day, ranging from those with the most severe learning disabilities to those who are our most advanced. She’d calculated that she’s given 30 seconds per child to prepare her lessons. She asked why, when that time is being filled by so many tasks designed to hold her accountable for her performance, there are no accountability measures being put in place for the people who design accountability measures. Duncan began with a complete non-sequitor about the importance of Pell Grants. Then he said, of accountability measures, that he favors those built around growth rather than raw measurements of student achievement. In this answer, he mentioned the Chalkboard Project, an Oregon-based non-profit school reform organization which is often at odds with teachers. The crowd booed, which seemed to take Duncan by surprise.

The next question, about TIFF and Waivers, was such insider baseball that Duncan told the questioner he’d be happy to talk with him about it afterwards.

A Para-Educator asked about the role of Paras. Duncan talked about how all the adults in a school need to work together, which didn’t seem to address her question at all. He then asked us to guess how much the federal government spends on professional development for teachers. Someone shouted “Zero!” He explained that the Feds spend $3.5 billion a year on professional development, and guessed that, with state and local funds, it’s probably double that, and yet we would guess zero because it’s spent so ineffectively. In my own personal experience, federal money that went to the National Writing Project had a dramatic effect on my teaching, but I only know about the role of the federal government in the program because they then cut that funding. I personally wonder how much of the disconnect is because of ineffective spending, and how much is simply a consequence of not advertising where the dollars come from when programs are valuable.

This brought us to what I thought was the most impressive answer of the whole event. A teacher from Beaverton asked how we could be cutting education while spending so much on the war in Afghanistan. Duncan said this question was a great one, at got at some deeper questions. He described the amount we spend on incarceration in this country, to applause. He described the need to allow immigrant children to enroll in our colleges, to applause. “Our priorities are out of whack,” he told us. He explained that he believes education is an investment, and that other countries are investing while we are cutting. “As a country,” he said, “we’re fighting for our soul.” Wild applause.

Notice what he did there? Incarceration rates are something that are determined by a host of agencies, and by different levels of government. The failure of the Dream Act can be pinned on Congressional Republicans. The rates of investment in other countries are determined by those countries themselves, and our ability to compete financially is largely determined by states, since the Feds only provide around 9% of public school funding. What was the one thing that Duncan’s boss actually has complete control over, and could eliminate almost immediately to show that we are getting our priorities back in order? The war in Afghanistan, the very thing the questioner asked about. Duncan not only dodged her question, but did it so deftly he had to stop for applause three times. That’s some fancy dancing.

The last question was the most direct. The educator asked Duncan how he would be convincing the Oregon Business Association to support us when he attended a gala fundraiser of theirs this evening. He told her that, though he believes “You will never have a great community or city without a great public school system,” we are all too mired in the blame game, that teachers need to look in the mirror, that we need to meet in the middle, and that we need to stop pointing fingers.

At that point I stood up and screamed, “BS!” Then I launched into an eloquent rant about how it was total garbage to demand that teachers meet in the middle with people who, in some cases, are ideologically opposed to public education, and that it’s unfair to tell people not to play the blame game when, in fact, teachers have made all the sacrifices and suffered all the abuse while their critics haven’t done a single positive thing for the children we serve. The crowd went absolutely nuts, and I sat down amidst a standing ovation.

Okay, that last part didn’t happen. Duncan thanked us all for coming out, we clapped politely, and our OEA vice-president, Johanna Vandering, encouraged us to send any other questions to Mr. Duncan through\tellarne and to show up at the huge rally at the state capital in February.

Maybe, by February, I will have figured out how to give that eloquent speech. But today I listened to the Secretary of Education avoid every tough question by blaming everyone else for the things that make my day-to-day job harder, then conclude by telling me I shouldn’t play the blame game. I can only hope he heard our discontent and isn’t deluded into believing we were satisfied with his non-answers to our questions.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Why I Was Accused of Teacher Malpractice

I had a very jarring experience this week. After a lesson in my creative writing class on Wednesday that was not significantly different from one I've given dozens of times before, two students confronted me after class and accused me of a professional ethics violation, specifically of using my position as a teacher to share my political views. When pressed, they conceded that the views were not actually necessarily mine, and may have been balanced, but that the lesson involved politics and was therefore inappropriate. That's simply a misunderstanding of the nature of the violation they'd originally accused me of, but that didn't stop me from freaking out. I could imagine angry parents confronting me, or worse, going over my head and blind-siding my principal or superintendent with allegations of professional misconduct which could have severe repercussions. Outside of my classroom and the contract day I am quite politically active (as anyone who has read this blog before can infer), so I could imagine that someone, not knowing the lengths I go to in order to keep my views out of the classroom, might believe that I crossed that barrier I work so hard to maintain. I immediately shot off an email to my principal, both to document the incident and to warn her in case she was confronted by parents. Then I spent the evening allowing myself to get more and more worried about the situation. By midnight, it seemed sleep would be impossible, so I came downstairs and drafted a letter to my students explaining the situation. I still couldn't fall asleep until after 3:00 am. The next day, Thursday, I brought the letter to my principal and spoke with her about the situation. She was very supportive and encouraging, which made me feel a lot better. She read the letter, encouraged me to tone it down a notch, and advised me to send a kind of permission slip about the lesson home to parents next year in advance (good advice which I will follow). I read an abbreviated version of the letter to the students, and it seems the incident has blown over, though I can't be sure it won't explode at some point in the future. I wanted to share the letter here so other teachers, parents, friends, etc., could understand both my rebuttal and why I was so panicked. I apologize in advance for the length, but, as you can imagine, I had a lot to get off my chest.

"Well, my dear creative writing students, it’s 12:17 in the morning and I can’t sleep. Today (technically yesterday) I made an error in judgment and I want to apologize and explain something. So (cue trumpets), with much fanfare, please accept…

An Apology and Explanation

Yesterday, before beginning the reading of the 3rd chapter of the novel I’m writing, I meant to remember to say, albeit briefly, that there would be some references to things that are political in the text, but that the character’s views were not my own, and that if the prospect of hearing about anything political made anyone uncomfortable, they could be excused from the assignment. Once I’d passed out the copies I simply forgot.

After class, some of your classmates came to me, concerned that I was trying to share my own political beliefs. I must immediately say that I firmly prohibit any kind of witch-hunt to try to figure out who these students were. I appreciated their honesty and I think their concern is valid. Please allow me to try to explain why I also believe it is misplaced in this instance.

First of all, there’s a general misconception that teachers can’t talk about anything political. This is, on its face, not only incorrect but impossible. We couldn’t do our jobs if we avoided any topic which relates to politics. Every novel we teach is political. All the history we teach inevitably has political bias. In fact, in recent history even science has been politicized. One could argue that everything you read in school is biased toward English-speakers by virtue of being written in English, or biased toward Americans because of the way words like “color” and “theater” are spelled. The complete absence of bias is a myth, and fleeing from politics is not our job. However, we have an ethical obligation to avoid using our positions as your teachers to try to inculcate you into our own political beliefs. I take this very seriously. I do not tell students how I vote or how they should feel about specific issues, and I encourage all of you to let me know if you believe I’ve been intentionally or accidentally biased in my presentation of any information.

That being said, the explanation given by the novel’s character for the fall of our civilization could be easily misconstrued to reflect my beliefs. I can only ask you to trust me when I say his politics do not mirror my own. I understand that skeptical students would wonder why they should believe that and not feel they were being doubly deceived. If you’ll allow me, let me provide one uncontroversial piece of evidence. The character in the story expresses a fatalism about the fall of our civilization. Of course, he is speaking from a different, fictional setting in which this has already occurred. I think I can safely share that I do not believe this to be any kind of inevitability, or that the fictional story is some kind of prophecy. I am a teacher. This is an inherently hopeful profession. I would not do this job if I believed that we are all doomed. If you can accept that I differ from the character in this way, I hope you will also believe me when I say that we differ in other beliefs as well. I cannot, however, itemize all the ways I agree and disagree with the character because, to do so, I would have to expound on my own politics, which would be inappropriate.

So why, you might ask, if the assignment creates a situation wherein students can only trust that their teacher isn’t preaching his own politics, would I continue to offer up the assignment? I believe its value exceeds the risk. As developing writers, there is a value to the practice of editing and revision that can only come with repetition. You will be editing and revising one another’s work. I feel it’s important to lay the groundwork for that by modeling the proper way to receive feedback. On a deeper level, I think it’s essential for students to see that I, too, am involved in the practice of writing. Across this country there are hosts of English teachers asking students to write while not participating in the endeavor themselves. Maybe it’s not a hobby they enjoy. Maybe their work demands so much time they simply cannot fit it into their schedules. I shouldn’t judge them. But I know that, as a student, I would question the authority of any writing instructor who didn’t write, just as I would question a literature instructor who didn’t read literature or a P.E. teacher who refused to exercise.

But, you might ask, couldn’t I have chosen to tell a story that was clearly apolitical? I would argue, quite simply, no, I couldn’t. I could have told a story set in a fantasy world completely dissimilar to our own with characters barely resembling human beings, or perhaps with anthropomorphized animals, and the politics within the story might have been a lot more subtle. That subtlety might have protected me from any accusations of impropriety. But I would argue that is actually a far more dangerous situation. As with advertising or any other form of manipulation, it’s when we are least suspecting of bias or ulterior motive that we are most susceptible. For the reasons mentioned above, I chose to share the book I really am writing. But I also went out of my way to try to make sure that the politics were as even-handed as I could make them and still explain the extreme setting of the story. Hence the explanation that both sides’ worst fear came true simultaneously. Frankly, if this book were ever to be published with my name on it, I might edit that portion to more accurately reflect my politics, but I felt that would be inappropriate for a classroom. It’s true that balance isn’t the same thing as a lack of bias, but I’d again ask you to believe me when I say I chose balance to try to present a believable dystopia without injecting the class with my own politics.

So, if I made any of you uncomfortable yesterday, I apologize for not giving you an out in advance. That was my oversight. And now for the announcement part (trumpets again, please): In our following unit we were going to begin a careful examination of some literature written by some writers who are far more talented than I could ever hope to be (well, I can hope, I guess. Teacher, remember). We’re now going to move that assignment up. This will not mean any extra work for anyone. It just shifts our schedule around a bit. The reason I’m doing this is that I plan on continuing to share from the novel I’m writing, as long as the majority of you are still interested in reading it. Those of you who are not comfortable reading my writing may choose to do the same assignment, providing detailed feedback chapter by chapter, to the works of established authors from the books I’ve chosen. If you want to escape all writers’ politics, I’m afraid you’re out of luck in a creative writing class. If you don’t feel comfortable hearing a story from your teacher because of his immediate presence in the room and necessarily conflicting roles as writer and teacher, I can only hope that I am modeling accepting that feedback by not demanding that you continue to read my work, and by modeling not being offended by that choice in the slightest.

One last note: The reason it is unethical for public school teachers to share their personal political views is not because we are paid with taxpayer money. If any of you attend a public university next year you will hear lectures from professors who are also paid with public funds and who do not shy away from sharing their personal views. The reason it is unethical for teacher like me to do that is because young minds are more malleable and more likely to be swayed by authority figures. So let me say something that I don’t believe is controversial at all: You cannot hide from politics any more than you can hide from questions of religion or identity or tastes in food or people’s opinions about next week’s weather. Your best and only defense is in greeting all opinions with a healthy dose of skepticism. Whether those opinions come from your teachers or your friends or your television, I encourage you to listen or read very carefully the opinions of anyone, alive or dead, authority figure or peer, and then decide for yourselves. I admit that the notion that you should think for yourselves is my personal political belief, but I refuse to accept that this belief is too controversial, because if it is, then I’m afraid all education is impossible.

Okay, now it’s 1:31 in the morning and I will be seeing you all painfully soon. Please accept my apology for the oversight and let me know privately if you would prefer the alternate assignment."

I hope this will put an end to the whole affair. Ultimately (and ironically), I expect that will be determined by workplace, local, family, and parental politics.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Alan Grayson for President

I've been thoroughly enjoying the letters Alan Grayson sends me asking for my support in his congressional campaign. If I had money (right after I gave a ton to my Mom's team for the Walk to End Alzheimer's) I'd toss some his way. I don't think Grayson would be a good presidential candidate. He's got too many knocks against him. He's funny. He speaks his mind even when his views aren't popular. He's transparently partisan, and in the wrong party for that to be a good thing. Still, he's exactly what the Democratic party needs, and what any country needs from the opposition party in one of its legislative bodies.

I'm not 100% positive if I'm violating any kind of copyright by republishing Grayson's most recent letter to me, but I figure, heck, it was addressed to me, so it's mine to do with as I please, right? So I wanted to share it with you. Enjoy!

Dear Benjamin:

If you have been hearing the term “job creators” a lot lately, it’s because Frank Luntz wanted you to.

As PBS put it, Luntz’s expertise is “testing language and finding words that will help his clients sell their products, or turn public opinion on an issue or a candidate.” In other words, propaganda.

Here are some actual examples of Luntz’s fine work:

Don’t say “oil drilling.” Say “energy exploration.”

Don’t say “inheritance tax.” Say “death tax.”

Don’t say “global warming.” Say “climate change.”

Don’t say “healthcare reform.” Say “government takeover.”

And don’t say “greedy, soulless multinational corporations who don’t give a damn about you.” Say “job creators.”

Luntz is like a serial killer of the English language.

We are not Luntz-puppets. Support our campaign, because we are not fooled by Luntz word games.

As soon as I heard the term “job creators,” I said to myself, “that sounds like Frank Luntz talking.” And sure enough, it’s right in there in Frank Luntz’s latest book, Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business from Ordinary to Extraordinary. Here are Luntz’s exact words: “You don’t create jobs by making life difficult for job creators.” That’s under the heading “The Ten Rules for 2012: What Americans Really Want to Hear from Their Representatives.”

Here is Luntz’s list of what we all “really” want to hear in 2012:

I will never accept the status quo.
I will never apologize for America.
I will find at least one penny of waste to cut from every dollar of spending.
I will never raise taxes in a recession.
You don’t work for me. I work for you.
I will fight for the public’s right to know the cost and consequences of every piece of legislation and regulation.
I will always prioritize American rights over the rights of those who wish to do us harm.
I will work with anyone who will work with me.
I will always support freedom.
I still believe in the American principle: of the people, by the people, for the people.

Note the absence of anything even resembling a policy, a program, or a solution to anyone’s problems. So, for instance, the Luntzified Republican Party’s health care plan really is, “don’t get sick.”

If you are sick and tired of government by cliché, you’re not the only one. Contribute to our campaign, and send Frank Luntz a message – in plain English.

And leaving Ron Paul aside, doesn’t that Luntz list sound like every single Republican candidate for President? And almost every Republican Governor? And almost every Republican Senator? And, of course, Sarah Palin?

Which suggests this startling possibility: If they all read Luntz’s book, then they all know how to read.

But that’s all they ever need to do. It must be so easy to be a Republican elected official. You never have to think at all. You just let Frank Luntz do all your thinking for you.

I look forward to the day when Frank Luntz prescribes a haircut. Then they’ll all have the same haircut.

I wish that, just once, Frank Luntz would goof on them, and tell them that what Americans really want to see in their representatives is a little, tiny moustache, just covering the upper lip, like, like . . .

Like Charlie Chaplin. You know, like in the movie “The Great Dictator.” Whom did you think I was going to say?

Here are some more Luntzisms that I just made up:

Vampires are “blood recyclers.”

Space aliens are the “differently specied.”

Plagues are “immune system strengtheners.”

Cancer is “internal genetic diversity.”

Death is “spiritual-corporeal differentiation.”

And nuclear war is “1000 points of light.”

But here’s the really sad thing about Luntz’s propaganda. Like most propaganda, it’s just not true.

FACT: In the last ten years, the population of the United States has grown by 27 million people.

FACT: There are one million fewer private sector jobs in America today than there were ten years ago.

So much for job creation. In fact, judging by employment, if the private sector were an employee, we’d have to fire him. For incompetence.

But you can count on 2012 Republican candidates all over the country repeating ad nauseam “jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators.”

As far as they’re concerned, it’s Frank Luntz’s world. We just live in it.

Jobs. Health. Peace. That’s the real world, not Frank Luntz’s fantasy world. Make a difference; support our campaign today.


Alan Grayson

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Best Piece on the GOP I've Ever Read

I've been caught in a number of online debates recently trying, and failing, to express my frustration with the modern Republican Party. I tend to get three different kinds of responses. On says that I'm painting the whole GOP with too broad a brush, and that, even within the elected leadership, there's a lot more variation than I can appreciate as an outsider. The second says that, no matter how hard I try to be even handed, every attempt I make to describe the ideology and political strategy of the Republicans inaccurately casts them as calculating, nefarious, and cynical. The third rebuttal swallows every criticism I make and replies with an example of Democratic incompetence, cronyism, or political hypocrisy.

Then I came across this. It's written by a man who worked as a congressional staffer for GOP representatives for 28 years. His thesis; it is a concerted political strategy, it is nefarious and cynical, and the GOP is worse than the Dems. I know this piece is long, but please, take the time to read it and consider the possibility that the writer's experience might give him the authority to talk about this in a way that no other politician, pundit, or that whiny bald blogger ever could.

Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult

by: Mike Lofgren

Barbara Stanwyck: "We're both rotten!"

Fred MacMurray: "Yeah - only you're a little more rotten." -"Double Indemnity" (1944)

"Those lines of dialogue from a classic film noir sum up the state of the two political parties in contemporary America. Both parties are rotten - how could they not be, given the complete infestation of the political system by corporate money on a scale that now requires a presidential candidate to raise upwards of a billion dollars to be competitive in the general election? Both parties are captives to corporate loot. The main reason the Democrats' health care bill will be a budget buster once it fully phases in is the Democrats' rank capitulation to corporate interests - no single-payer system, in order to mollify the insurers; and no negotiation of drug prices, a craven surrender to Big Pharma.

"But both parties are not rotten in quite the same way. The Democrats have their share of machine politicians, careerists, corporate bagmen, egomaniacs and kooks. Nothing, however, quite matches the modern GOP..." (Please continue here)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Back to School... for Writers

[Here's a post I wrote for, republished here with permission.]

Over the next few weeks, across the country, students (and teachers) will be going back to school. Writers, in contrast, never stop writing, so the event has no bearing on our writing life whatsoever… except that maybe it does. Maybe, if we’re really honest, we admit that we don’t always follow Stephen King’s writing regimen perfectly. We take breaks. Sometimes those breaks are longer than they should be. Or maybe we’ve been pounding out our daily wordcount, but we need to be reinvigorated. Remembering how to “go back to school” can inform our practice as writers.

Summer Break

Hopefully the cause for our hiatus from our writing regimen isn’t seasonal. As a teacher, I’m struggling not to launch into one of my rants about how summer vacation is a throwback to an agrarian economy, how summer breaks don’t prepare students for a working world where no adults get them (not even teachers), and about how it’s amazing that our schools measure up as well as they do when compared to the schools in countries where students go to school for eleven months a year, six days a week. I won’t go into that. Except to say that it is analogous to taking a long hiatus from writing in that both are terrible ideas. Try to avoid taking long breaks from your writing. Get back to work. If that means ditching that novel which seems to be set in the nation of Writer’s-block-istan and tells the story of Prince Spamlet who is dithering about whether to choose chocolate or vanilla ice cream, drop that project and write a short story about someone in a more interesting place who actually does something that has real consequences. Or go outside and write some Haikus. It doesn’t matter. Just tell yourself, “Break’s over. Time to go back to school.”

Back to School Shopping

Students waste exorbitant amounts of their parents’ money when they beg for trendy, gaudy clothing to wear the first day of school, especially when you consider that the only thing changing faster than fashion is the size of clothes those kids fit into. Then they turn around and forget to buy paper and pencils to put in their flashy new backpacks. Some writers make the same mistake, in a way. We worry about what kinds of novels are selling and try to write the next Harry PotterHarry Potter Paperback Box Set (Books 1-7) or TwilightThe Twilight Saga Collection or The HelpThe Help (Movie Tie-In) instead of worrying about the way we’ll actually do our work. Stephen King, in On WritingOn Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft, tells the story of his uncle’s toolbox, and uses it as a metaphor for the collection of skills we acquire as writers. A student’s backpack will serve the same function. Those flashy sets of 300 colored pens of all shades; that’s an overly flowery vocabulary. The student doesn’t need all those pens, and you don’t need to use a thesaurus to find words your reader won’t know. Something drawn with a simple dollar-store box of crayons can be beautiful, and something drawn with nothing but black ink on paper can be powerful. Save those weird words for Scrabble. They don’t belong in your writer’s backpack.

Proper grammar and mechanics, on the other hand, are your notebook paper, the means to pass your work to someone else in a way that’s intelligible. If you’re really good (and sure you’re not going to create a cultural caricature or simply look like a fool) you can get away with fancy notebook paper, like writing in dialect or a character’s voice which breaks the rules. But even then, you need to know them. You can’t go to school without paper.

Make sure you have an eraser, too. The tiny little multi-colored erasers on your pencils are garbage. Get a big, fat pink eraser. You will need to edit brutally, bravely, and with some elbow grease, so make sure you’ve got an eraser that shows your commitment to that part of the process. In fact, buy more than one.

You also need to be willing to refine your skills. That’s your pencil sharpener. You don’t need a five pound electronic device that plugs into the wall. Getting better, as a writer, takes time and effort. Get a tiny little sharpener and work that pencil to a sharp point. Those little ones really work. Read some Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, or Voltaire. Those guy’s pencils were lethal. Grab some Cormac McCarthy. He’s ground his pencil down to a tiny little nub of metal and graphite. There’s barely any cheap pine left when he goes to work. Be inspired by that, and sharpen your own tools until your words cut the paper to shreds.

Don’t worry too much about what you’ll write about. Textbooks might not even be distributed until the second week. The ideas will come. When you’re shopping for your writing skills, focus on being prepared so you can do excellent work when your muse finally gives you that big assignment.

First Day Jitters

After a break of any length, you’ll come back to writing with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. The writer’s vocation is not mandatory, so if you weren’t somewhat eager, you would just watch daytime TV all year. You’ve come to this because some part of you loves it, but you also know that it will entail some struggle and possibly some heartbreak. That’s okay. Just be grateful that you attend an academic establishment with a student body of one. The teachers are not identifying the behavioral issues. The mean girls aren’t sizing up the threats to their popularity. The bullies aren’t figuring out who is skinny enough to fit in a locker and who is fat enough to create suction when tossed in a trash can. You can come back to school, write something more embarrassing than that nightmare where you forgot to wear pants one day, and no one will ever know. Rejoice in the privacy of the writer’s life.

But save everything. Your draft might be a pimple-faced kid with no pants on, but later you could put some leather pants on those scrawny legs and he’ll be a rock star.

Reconnecting with Old Friends and Making New Ones

Your summer break may have been caused by a story that was a dud. It happens. But you may also find that you and your characters just needed some time apart. Going back to school provides an opportunity to reevaluate those relationships. Sometimes, when students come back to school, they find that their inner circle is changing shape as people grow apart. This doesn’t have to mean that your characters were worthless. It just might mean that some of your acquaintances could turn out to be better friends than last year’s BFFs. Try identifying that interesting ancillary character who was more fun to write about than your protagonist. Maybe, now that you’re back in school, it’s a good time to take a whack at telling her story, or telling the same story from her point of view. Even if you maintain the same relationships you had back in the spring of your writing life, this fall provides an opportunity to get to know those characters better. As a writing exercise, imagine how they spent their summer vacations. What kinds of things did they do to fill those long, hot months? How were their family relationships? What kind of trouble were they most tempted to get into, and did they avoid that temptation, succumb to it reluctantly, or revel in it? What did they learn about themselves (or choose not to learn about themselves)? Maybe this exercise will drive you back into the story. Maybe it will drive you out, and you’ll realize you need an all-new circle of friends for the upcoming school year. That’s okay. It can be hard to make new friends and hard to say goodbye to old ones as you grow apart, but take comfort in the fact that the same thing is happening to millions of kids all over the country. They’ll get through it, and so will you.

Hitting the Books

Despite what some of my students might tell you, school isn’t just about your social life. Now that you’re back, there’s work to be done. Just in case you’re still stuck, in the vein of our return from summer vacation, allow me to give you a writing prompt to begin the school year. Consider this your “back to school” countdown:

“Nothing forced him to return. He could have hidden forever. But he made the four step voyage across the porch. Three months was too long to run away from life, from love, from consequences. He took two long, careful breaths, ran his fingers through his hair just once, and knocked…”

Hopefully that will get you going. Welcome back!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Killing the Pain of Rejection: A Writer’s Failed Experiment

Today I shot my rejection letters. It didn’t make me feel better.

Sharing this story may be a mistake. It’s very bad form to whine about rejection letters. For one thing, it is whining, and that’s bad enough. No one likes whiners. But it’s even worse when it seems that a writer is slagging on an agent, so let me be very up-front about this: I am not angry with the two agents who rejected my most recent novel this week.

I have a great deal of respect for literary agents. This isn’t some form of brown-nosing because I want one of them to accept my work. I respect them because I understand what they do. Even this knowledge has been gleaned thanks to the generosity of agents; I’ve never been an agent nor do I know any personally beyond a few evenings’ conversation, but some agents keep great blogs about their work, and these give insights into why agents do what they do. First of all, agents love books, love writers, and love connecting writers with readers. They’re our advocates. They’re on our side. The trick is getting a generic someone who is generally on the side of writers to become a very specific someone who is advocating for you, personally. That’s arduous, to say the least. But I believe it’s worthwhile, and not just because of the dollars and cents (though I’ll be the first to argue that taking 15% off of something is better than keeping 100% of nothing). But agents also make our work better, and not just once we’ve acquired one. Trying to please these gatekeepers forces us to ask important questions as we write. “Who will the agent sell this to?” forces us to think about audience. “Will this grab an agent on page 1?” forces us to write a first page that will also hold a reader. “Can I pitch this to an agent in under thirty seconds?” forces us to think about theme and character in a way that can increase the coherence of a novel. Agents serve us before they ever hear from us.

And then, when they do hear from us, they try to do right by us. If they love our work and believe they can sell it, “doing right” involves signing us, helping us edit the manuscript again, and pitching it to publishers. But when they have to reject us (and they do), they really are concerned about our feelings. I’ve never met or read about an agent who took that duty lightly.

So why do rejection letters seem so curt and even callous? There are a few good reasons, none of which make a lie of the agents’ concern for the writers they deal with. First of all, if agents wrote lengthy, detailed rejection letters, they’d be wasting the time they owe to the writers they’ve already signed. An agent who writes you a five page rejection letter is an agent you wouldn’t want signing you, because she would then spend her time writing five page rejection letters to everybody else in her slush pile instead of selling your work. Besides the time management issue, agents don’t write long letters because they are making a clean break with you. Think of that horrible ex-boyfriend your friend was dating. Instead of breaking off the relationship, he acted like a jerk until she finally did it. He was a coward, and it hurt her more than if he’d come clean when he didn’t want to be in the relationship. Agents don’t want to send the false impression that they might say yes if you tweak this or that part of the manuscript. When they write “It isn’t right for me,” by “it” they mean the whole thing. That doesn’t mean they hate you or that the book is garbage. They mean they can’t enter into a relationship with that book, even if it stops leaving the toilet seat up or does the dishes more often.

I was lucky. I’d met both of the agents who rejected me at last week’s Willamette Writers Conference. They were kind and encouraging in person and followed up with supportive letters that were much longer than necessary. I would have understood if they’d sent me a one line reply, but one of them gave me two paragraphs. Both of them are on my short-list for future novels if this one doesn’t pan out. I sent them short thank you notes in which I said I was genuinely grateful for their time and consideration, and guess what? I was being genuinely genuine.

And there’s the rub. Rejection hurts. Some writers hide from that pain by blaming the agent. “She didn’t recognize my genius!” they seem to say. Bull. First of all, appreciation for any given novel is subjective. What one person my find brilliant, another may find tiresome or confusing or in need of major revision. That’s not the agent’s fault. Criticizing her for that is like saying she has the wrong favorite color. Also, agents are working, not just reading for pleasure. Maybe she enjoyed your book but didn’t think any publisher would buy it. More specifically, maybe she didn’t think any editor would buy it from her, in which case she’s done you a favor by directing you to find someone who thinks she can sell it.

Some writers blame the whole industry. I think this inclines some people to look to e-publishing, indie-publishing, or vanity publishing (not the same things, mind you). That decision should be based on other factors, like platform and audience, rather than on a knee-jerk reaction to rejection. The great thing about the self-publishing world is that there are no gatekeepers. Consequently, some readers who wouldn’t have been served by the traditional market are being connected with some writers who would have been barred by that system. But those readers have to wade through a sea of mediocrity and worse to get there, and that sea just gets more polluted when writers who fear rejection throw their muck into it without concern for who their audience might be and why the traditional publishing industry isn’t snapping them up.

Some writers turn that rejection inward. “She’s saying I’m a worthless human being.” Again, writing is subjective. Plus, she’s not saying anything at all about you. She’s saying something about your manuscript. It’s not personal. Of course it feels personal to us, because we poured our soul into that book, but, at this stage, it’s important to remember that we’re more than one novel. Faced with the choice between blaming the agent and blaming myself, I think it’s healthier and more honest to take responsibility, as long as it motivates me to write a better book next time, but not if it makes me want to reach for the bottle of vodka in the back of the cupboard.

But the pain is still there. I can’t let it consume me, and I can’t direct it at the agent who sent me the letter. So what am I to do with this feeling?

I had an idea. I decided to try to externalize it and attack the feeling directly. I printed out the rejection letters, then added a digital “REJECTED” stamp and crosshairs. They looked like this:

Even before I shot at them, I suspected it wouldn’t work. For one thing, I don’t go target shooting out of anger. I’ve only recently become a gun-owner, and I bought them for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I want to be prepared should I ever need them to feed or protect my family. Second, firearms are an interesting subject to learn about, and I’m only now realizing how completely ignorant I’ve been regarding this vast area of study I’ve completely neglected. Third, I’d like to come across as at least somewhat believable when I write about people using guns in my fiction. Finally, I admit, it’s a lot of fun. None of these reasons inclines me toward any kind of hostility involving firearms. They were the wrong tool for my purposes. I’d brought a gun to a feeling fight.

But I tried. I shot the ever-loving s--- out of those rejection letters.

As I’d expected, the exercise did little for my emotional well-being. It got a few chuckles out of some friends and family when I explained my plans. But once I was shooting, the pleasure of the experience came from trying to hit the target. I completely forgot about the abstract emotional goal. I could have been doing any other fun, competitive task. I might as well have been practicing my free throws or trying to learn a musical instrument. It had no effect on my feelings about rejection in general, or the specific disappointment those letters produced.

That shouldn’t surprise me. I’m sure there are more emotionally evolved people who can export specific feelings, physicalize them, and confront them. They’re probably mostly Buddhists, and they are unlikely to project those emotional constructs into paper targets and shoot at them.

I’m not a Buddhist. I’m just a writer. I shape feelings into letters and words and sentences. Then I hope that someone is willing to read those sentences. A reader’s empathy provides the comfort that small, singed holes in paper never can.

That’s the moral of the story: To confront rejection, put the gun away and get back to work.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"Writers Create Worlds" Poster

Inspired by an excellent speech by author Chris Humphreys, which included a delivery of one of Theseus' monologues from A Midsummer Night's Dream, I thought I'd make a poster for my classroom. Teachers (and writers), let me know what you think and feel free to steal the image if you'd like it.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Can hostage-takers blame a hostage situation on the President?

Yesterday I received an email, one of those supposedly "funny" forwards that are sent on by well-meaning family, which quoted an anonymous stock broker blaming the current state of the economy on "this administration." The email went on to encourage me to see if my broker agreed.

Let's ignore, for a moment, the tone-deafness of a plea to the general public encouraging us to talk to the stock brokers most of us don't have. Blaming this administration for all our economic woes is not only ignorant, but it's insulting in that it's part of a transparent agenda that depends on our stupidity.

But it takes two to tango, right? Obama can certainly be blamed for not making a case clearly to the American people. I can't argue with that. He's done a terrible job of framing the issues. Too many Americans thought the debt ceiling was about increasing the size of government, rather than paying the bills we'd already incurred, mostly under Republicans. It's worth wondering what compulsion drives him to such weak negotiating positions. Is it cowardice? Is it an obsessive desire for bipartisanship? Is he too in bed with Wall Street to call them on their role in the economic downturn, and too dependent on wealthy donors to ask them to pay their fair share? Is it a hyper-focus on the independent voter and on re-election? If so, he may very well be doomed to fail in the next election precisely because he sought to placate the middle and thus compromised his way to their right, demotivating enough of the left to erode his own base.

But blaming this economy on the ineptitude of the administration's negotiating abilities ignores something that deserves more of our attention. If we're in the state we're in because Obama can't properly negotiate with Republicans, why should we possibly consider turning the keys to the car over to the people who pulled us into a ditch because they really wanted to drive us off a cliff? Bi-partisan compromise deserves bi-partisan blame. If we acknowledge that Obama got rolled, then the bulk of the blame needs to be with the side that pulled him so far away from what he wanted.

It takes two to tango, but hostage-takers are not dance partners. Saying the Republicans are hostage-takers is not liberal propaganda. Mitch McConnell, the most moderate of the Republicans involved in leading these debt negotiations, admitted to the strategy. “I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting,” he said. “Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this — it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done.” In essence, "most" didn't want to bankrupt the country by refusing to pay our bills, but they knew Democrats cared more about preserving the economy than they did, and would be willing to give in to their demands. It's smart strategy. It's also shocking he would be so honest about it. But then, this is the same moderate Republican who admitted “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Not jobs. Not the security of the country. Undermining the President is the number one goal.

McConnell's honesty is refreshing, but it makes the email I received all the more infuriating. Imagine if someone walked up to you and said, is the clearest possible terms, "I'm going to punch you in the face. After I do, I want you to blame that guy over there for any pain you feel."

Wham! Stars.

As you reel back, would you ignore the man standing right in front of you with your blood on his fist and say, "What just happened? I don't understand what is causing this pain, but I seem to remember something about that guy across the room. He must have done this to me!"

Obama is certainly to blame for not confronting far-right Tea Party rhetoric more directly. He should have crossed the room and defended the American middle class from the guy threatening to punch us in the face. If we decide we need someone else to protect us because of his failure, that's sensible. We're bleeding, after all. But if we choose to look for protection from the very people who bloodied our collective nose just because they point at the President, we are responsible for the pummeling we're gonna' get.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Willamette Writers Conference

Here's why I'm not going to be blogging just yet about the Willamette Writers Conference: I'm an idiot. I forgot the power cord to my laptop at home, so when the battery runs out in a moment, I'll be limited to my phone. Suffice it to say that the experience has been wonderful already. We're only through the first day, and I've already exceeded my personal goals here. It's all gravy from now on. When I get home and can plug in, I'll scream to the digital heavens about how great Willamette Writers is (are?). Until then, keep your fingers crossed for me that it just keeps getting better.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Short Story: "Painless Separation"

[This story was the Featured Friday Fiction on With Johanna Harness' permission, I thought I'd put it up here, too. Thanks to @johannaharness for giving me this chance!]

Painless Separation

A few weeks ago, our relationship started to get rocky. No, not rocky. It got wiggly. Anyway, I knew a break-up was inevitable.

Noah and I had been together for over six years. I wasn’t his first (I was his third), but we were both so young when we got together, we basically grew up at the same time.

I remember when Noah introduced me to his parents. They loved me immediately. They coo-ed over me. “So cute!” they told him. That felt good. I’ll miss them, too.

Mostly, our relationship was… well, you know how, when people ask about a how things are going and you say, “Great,” but you don’t really mean exceptional? You just mean that there’s nothing wrong. Noah was very stable; considerate but not particularly affectionate, dependable but not passionate.

I mean, I had my little issues. His diet, for one thing. Noah loves candy. That always bothered me. He wasn’t heavy. In fact, Noah’s a skinny guy. But he was always looking for the next gummy bear the way a less moral man might keep an eye out for floozies. It irritated me. It wasn’t a serious threat to the health of the relationship or anything. But it was the one way Noah was inconsiderate, and because his sensitivity was my favorite of his qualities, that unwillingness to think about my needs bothered me just a bit.

Still, over-all, Noah was great to me. He was protective, but not in some annoying, macho way. And tender. I liked that a lot. I guess I’d always known we wouldn’t go the distance. Relationships that start when you’re so young almost never do. But I fell into a rhythm, I got comfortable, and I guess I let myself be lulled into a false sense of security.

Then, a few weeks ago, I could tell he was just not holding on to me quite so tightly. I thought about it a lot, of course. I suspected there was someone else. I wondered if I was being pushed out. But there didn’t seem to be any evidence. I just started feeling like I was …I don’t know, dangling there, somehow.

And the more I thought about it, the worse it got. Pretty soon I was hanging by a thread. His parents, who’d been so supportive at first, turned on me so quickly it shocked me.

“I think it’s time,” they’d tell him. I was right there!

His dad was the worst. Noah’s mom would just leave the room whenever the topic of our relationship came up. Like she wanted to wash her hands of the whole thing. That stung. But his dad was really in his face, actively trying to pull us apart. I don’t think I’ll ever fully forgive his dad. And the way Noah just let his dad talk to him like that, and never stood up for me… I thought I’d never be able to forgive him, either. But then…

See, it all came to a head the earlier tonight when his dad was getting in his face again.

“But it hurts!” Noah said. See? That was the kind of sensitivity I depended on. But now it had all turned to selfishness. No concern for me whatsoever.

“We won’t do it if it hurts. It can wait a little while. Maybe tomorrow night.” His dad said this in a completely calm voice. Like postponing a breakup for a single day was some great mercy.

“Okay,” Noah said. I was in agony. He was just accepting this one day delay without a word of protest? I couldn’t believe it!

I should have been outraged. Such an obvious attack on my pride should have motivated me to break it off first. I know that now. But it just made me more desperate, more clingy. Pathetic, I know.

Then his dad said, “Oh, I have an idea!”

My hopes fell. Brainstorming about our break-up and he’d had a eureka moment. How could it get any worse?

“What?” Noah asked his dad. And there was an eagerness in his voice that shook me to the core.

“Hold on,” his dad said, and ran out of the room.

He came back a moment later holding an ice cube. Both of us were confused.

“Lean your head back,” his dad told him. Then he used the ice to numb Noah.

It’s strange, because the cold didn’t just prepare him for the breakup. It calmed me down, too. This was happening, I told myself, happening right now, but somehow it didn’t bother me as much anymore.

Then his dad took a piece of string and looped it next to me, then around behind me, and then back around to the front. He gently moved the string back and forth until it slid up above me. Maybe it was just because of the ice, but this reminded me of the tenderness his dad had shown back when I first appeared on the scene. Despite all his calls for our separation, his dad was acting like he cared again. I couldn’t feel much, but it felt good, in its own strange way. In fact, it almost tickled.
Then his dad twisted the string in front of Noah’s face and pulled the ends in opposite directions, first very gently to get his hands a few inches apart, then one quick tug.

And, just like that, we were through. There may have been a sound, but I was so surprised I honestly can’t remember if it was a pop or a bam or a squelching or just silence.

Next thing you know, I was in free fall. There’s always that moment, right after a breakup, when you’re just untethered, spinning and bewildered. For me, it was very brief.

I hit bottom fast. But, to my surprise, I felt whole. I was different, but the same. Complete, but separate. We had ended. I persisted. Frankly, I still can’t wrap my mind around it. Maybe I’m still grieving. I don’t know. But that wasn’t the end of the breakup.

His dad picked me up and set me down on the bathroom counter, right in front of Noah. It gave me a whole new perspective on him. Noah wasn’t sad, and that should have hurt me. A lot. But he looked shocked, and I could identify with that.

Then Noah smiled and examined the new gap between his teeth where I’d been just seconds before. His smile grew a little, and his eyes, already wide from the speed of the breakup, warmed up as though someone had stuck needles in them and injected them with pure joy.

“Oh my gosh!” he shouted, his voice cracking on the “oh,” with the “gosh” bursting out like an untied balloon filled with awe.

And he was so happy, so overjoyed, so beautiful that I couldn’t hold a grudge. I forgave him. I forgive him and I love him.

When the tooth fairy slips me out from under Noah’s pillow and flies me off to whatever’s next, I’ll go away happy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

GOP's Debt Ceiling Platform: "Screw Everybody"

I've been watching the debt ceiling debates with growing horror. A few months back, John Dickerson, senior political correspondent for Slate Magazine, laid out the narrative he expected we'd see in this debate. First, he predicted, thing would look tense. Then, both sides would say they'd reached an impasse. Then the President would sit both sides down and cajole them to hammer out a deal. Then they'd storm out and say the two sides had never been further apart. They'd continue this act in public while the real negotiations went on in private in order to strengthen their hands, and at the last minute we'd have a deal.

That's the way it went down with the last budget negotiations, and it seemed like this political kabuki would play out that way this time, as well.

And it still could...

...except that something feels very different this time. Republicans were scared of taking the blame for a government shutdown. They were still haunted by the ghosts of Gingrich past. This time, it seems the only ghost that bothers them is the ghost of Obama future. Mitch McConnel, the Senate Minority Leader, said, "My first priority is the defeat of President Obama." He's the one who seems to be the most reasonable Republican at the table. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, looks like he's going to deal one minute, then looks like he's going to get neutered by his caucus, then turns around and says he won't budge. Eric Cantor, House Majority Whip, seems like he's either focused on causing a government default, or on taking John Boehner's job, and, luckily for him, those might come about simultaneously.

Now, I'm no economist, so I won't weigh in on just how bad it might be if we default. There's a range of predictions by the experts. When there is a range (as with Global Warming), skeptics say, "See, there's no perfect consensus, so let's not worry about it." These folks do not seem swayed by the fact that all the predictions are bad. I haven't come across a single economist who says, "Let's default. It'll be grand!"

Many Americans (a minority, but a sizable one), favor defaulting. They think this is some kind of principled stand. I'm staling a metaphor from Emily Bazelon, but this is not a fiscally responsible, fiscally conservative, or even moral principled stand. These people are not saying, "Let's spend less." We've gone out and run up the credit card bill already. Now, when the bill comes due and the only alternatives are to make that call and ask for a higher credit limit or to declare bankruptcy, they are saying, "Let's rip up that credit card bill! That'll show 'em!" I don't know what moral universe those people were raised in, but I was taught that not paying your bills was at the very least an irresponsible act, and not doing it when you have the money is outright immoral.

And we do have the money! No one can dispute that we are capable of paying these bills. The debt is growing, but that means we need to re-examine two things: Money in, and money out. That's a worthwhile conversation to have. But we do have the money. So refusing to pay our bills should not be an option.

A majority of Americans believe this. But that might not matter. In this game of chicken, it looks increasingly like Republicans are more than willing to accelerate into a head-on collision. The polite explanation for this is that they are too dogmatic. That might not seem polite, but that's what's been coming from conservative pundits. They point out that the GOP is too wedded to anti-tax dogma, too hemmed in by Grover Norquists' pledge, too beholden to the Tea Party wing, to consider revenue increases of any kind. That not coming from liberals like me. That's coming from conservatives like Ben Stein, David Brooks, and even Norquist himself, who went out of his way to try to give Republicans some cover by letting them know that closing tax loopholes wouldn't violate his pledge. Many conservatives (who aren't elected officials) are just as worried about the GOP politicians' intransigence as I am.

I took that as a good sign. See, I was under the cynical misconception that money ruled Washington. I thought, as we came down to the wire, wealthy GOP donors would get on the phone and say, "Look, Representative X, I appreciate that you're trying to protect that windfall I get from the Bush tax cuts. And I really love what the low corporate tax rate does for my company's bottom line. I have a good laugh every time you smile at the camera and call me a 'job creator' while I send American jobs overseas. You and I, we're on the same page. But Mr. Congressman, you have to understand, I have a lot of money in the stock market. A lot. Stocks and Bonds. I don't want to pay higher taxes any more than anybody else does, but I stand to lose a lot more from a government default that tanks the bond market, then the stock market, than I do from a tax increase. I didn't get to where I am without being able to do simple math. So say that you won't bend and screw as many poor people as you can, but, in the end, make sure the government doesn't default, or I won't be able to throw that fundraiser for you in September."

Every time a conservative pundit came out in favor of a deal, I assumed these calls were being made. And maybe they are. And maybe, after Obama and the Democrats give up on everything their party holds dear, that will happen.

But I'm starting to doubt it. Maybe the kabuki is really good. But we've entered into the danger zone. If a plan were to come out right now, it still might be too late to get it through both houses of Congress and onto the President's desk in time to calm the markets. Which means those wealthy donors aren't swaying their representatives fast enough. This makes me even more cynical. Because if money doesn't move Washington, what does? Oh yeah. Maybe it's the thing that can't be reported politely by conservative pundits.

I don't think anti-tax dogma tells the whole story. I don't think loyalty to the Tea Party does, either. I'm staring to think it's all about power. The Republicans were canny to recognize that they had the President over a barrel. He can't afford a default on his watch. Unemployment is the best chance their weak field of presidential candidates have. So they knew they could bleed all kinds of concessions before striking a deal. President Obama told Eric Cantor, "Don't call my bluff, Eric." Now, maybe this was simply the weakest, lamest thing a president has ever said. Maybe a man as smart and educated as President Obama doesn't know that you shouldn't announce when you're bluffing, but he is and he did and he'll get called. Social programs will be slashed. The economy will take a hit. The poor will suffer. The middle class will shrink. But the debt ceiling will be raised, the Republicans will call it a win, and Obama will live to fight another day.

Or maybe there is a bill he would veto. Maybe he's not really bluffing. And now, the only way for Republicans to find out is to push through some truly draconian bill like Cut, Cap, and Balance (the exact same Republicans who, under Bush, never cut, never capped, and never balanced) and see if he blinks. Maybe this isn't kabuki after all. Maybe this is theater of a more realist variety. Chekov once told Shchukin, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off." Perhaps the rifle is not the default, but the bluff. Now it is loaded and hanging on the wall, and by August 2nd it must be discharged in someone's face.

And this is what scares me. Because if it's not about money, if it really is about power, then all the donors can make all the phone calls and it won't matter as long as GOP politicians adhere to McConnel's number one priority. Maybe they really do want to test Obama's willingness to be a one-term president by giving him an impossible choice: Either betray everything you believe in to get the ceiling raised, or let the country default. Maybe they've done the math as well, and have calculated that even if the country defaults, they will come out slightly ahead in the lose-lose. Sure, our economy will crater, and even their supporters will be angry with them, but as long as they'll be more angry with the President, it's worth it. If that's the case, if they are really willing to rip up the credit card bill and declare bankruptcy just to win the next election, we are all in big trouble.

Because it's not just a lose-lose for Obama. It's not just a lose-lose for the people counting on a Social Security check, or the people who depend on the programs Obama will be forced to cut to satisfy GOP demands. If Republican officials are willing to enter into a lose-lose that includes the wealthy, they're really saying "Screw America. We just want the White House and both houses of Congress." And those are the last people we should want there.