Saturday, December 12

Uncertainty

I live near one college campus and work at another and relish the opportunity to hear the views of emerging adults.

They worry about the future - not just for themselves but generations beyond.

Rising student debt and a shrinking number of good jobs don't help. The world's population expanded - from 1 billion in 1800 to near 2.5 billion in 1950 to more than 7 billion people today poised to reach 9 billion by 2050. The increase in population does not ensure more jobs. Globalization in communications ensures that many consumers will chase after the same small set of books, movies or songs. Technology sucks the creativity out of work  and even eliminates jobs at retail outlets like service stations or grocery stores just as computers reduced the need for secretaries or typists and software increasingly threatens employment in accounting, engineering, architecture, finance and other fields.

At the same time, governments and corporations tussle over benefits while taking on excessive debt for wars and infrastructure that may not serve future generations well. Businesses and states under-fund pensions. Students are urged to explore nursing as a stable career but new graduates struggle to find full-time employment as hospitals limit work to part-time.  Legislators insist that governments can no longer afford programs enjoyed by older adults.

Few leaders anticipate or plan ahead for trends emerging over the next 50 or more years.

At the same time, the world's climate is changing. Weather disasters, food shortages or conflict over a resource as basic as water could break out and add to the waves of desperate refugees seeking new homes.

COP21 is wrapping up, and by various reports, more global leaders are serious about addressing climate change. Others suggest the action does not go far enough.
 

More than one young adult has expressed fear that it's too late to prevent or slow a changing climate. Many recognize that wilderness is shrinking as populations expand. The collective experience with wilderness tightens with every generation.  Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, recalls his child pointing out that the young did not enjoy the woods as much as their parents did:

"He was right. Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that 
seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.

Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. 

The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment—
but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That's exactly the opposite of how it was 
when I was a child.... Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature."


More young adults adapt to the new uncertainties by learning to live with less and do more to interact with and record their experiences with nature. Many relish the new simplicity and deliberate over each purchase asking, Does this item make my life easier or does it make my life more complicated? Smart consumers do not overextend with housing, clothing, food and entertainment. A DIY economy is emerging. Many young adults, particularly the educated, vow they won't bring children into a world that is less comfortable than the one to which they were born.

Allure of Deceit tackles all these issues of globalization and more from the point of view of a few families in a remote Afghan village. 

The economy is shifting amid uncertainty, and most young adults do not complain. The rest of us could learn from their examples.

Photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Wednesday, November 18

Fertility rates

Restrictions on abortions and closure of clinics increase attempts at self-induced abortions, suggests a study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, University of Texas:

"To determine the prevalence of self-induced abortions in Texas, investigators surveyed women and asked them whether they had ever tried to end a pregnancy outside a clinical setting, or if their best friend had," reports Amanda Holpuch for the Guardian. "The best-friend measure was included because women tend to under-report abortions in studies."

Surveys are less than reliable, but methods for tallying such incidents are simply not available. As described in Allure of Deceit, a few women could be successful in terminating their own pregancy. Others fail and go on to deliver a child. The study suggests that between 100,000 and 240,000 women in the state of 27 million tried to induce an abortion at home.

Allure of Deceit, set in a fictional remote village in Afghanistan, takes an unconventional look at the topic.

The little girl was plump, content, alert. Before finding Shareen, Zahira had once believed that abortion was kinder than adoption. A mother could never trust a stranger with her child, and thoughts of Shareen with another woman were abhorrent. 

Zahira had rescued the  child not once, but twice. Their relationship was exceptional, though it was ironic how much Zahira sounded like the women who opposed abortion for others but vehemently justified their own.

The suspense novel begins at a lavish charity event and a Texas woman's hope to secure funding for a charity designed to introduce natural family planning in Afghanistan. The director of the largest foundation in the world uses such activities to investigate the death of her only son. His fortune led to the foundation's creation.

The US total fertility rate, the average number of children born to women during child-bearing years, has been in decline since the 2007-2008 recession, going from 2.09 children per woman in 2006 and 2007 to 2.01 in 2014, suggests CIA World Factbook and Mundi. Texas, at 2.07,  ranks among the 10 US states with highest fertility rates.

Afghanistan's fertility rate stands at 4.9 for 2013 down from its height of 7.9 around 2000 when the Taliban controlled the country, notes World Bank data. The CIA puts the country's fertility rate estimate at 5.33 children per women. Countries that have higher fertility rates than Afghanistan: Niber, Burundi, Mali, Somalia, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Zambia, Malawi, Angola. Texas's rate at 2.07 is less than rates for France and Guyana, higher than those in Grenada or Libya.

Places with higher fertility rates have younger populations and, with a median age of 33.6, Texas is the second youngest after Utah, according to the US Census.

The median age for the US is 37.8. For Afghanistan it is 18.4 - meaning half of Afghan people are children, according to CIA estimates. The Texas median age compares with Chile's, Greenland's, North Korea, Palau and Saint Lucia.
 
Fertility rates influence a society's environmental, security and economic conditions. Good governance requires monitoring demographics for long-term policy planning, and problems including waves of immigration, when young populations do not receive adequate education, health care and other services.

Photo of children in Afghanistan following a patrol by coalition forces and a provincial reconstruction team  in Laghman Province 2011, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane and Wikimedia Commons. Fear of Beauty is the story of a provincial reconstruction team in Helmand and an Afghan woman desperate to learn how to read after the death of her son on the night before he is supposed to leave for school.

Monday, November 16

Inevitable

The Islamic State does not abide by the Geneva Convention or any other code of conduct for war, adding to the challenge of the fight against terrorists who go after soft targets and behead prisoners of war and civilians.

One CIA estimate puts the Islamic State manpower at 31,500. By comparison, the United Nations estimates "that 7.6 million people are internally displaced" and "more than half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, whether they still remain in the country or have escaped across the borders," reports Mercy Corps.

Countries including the United States, Jordan, France and many others target Islamic State sites with air strikes. But air strikes are imprecise. Hitting civilians is inevitable, especially in battling an opponent that lacks a code of conduct.

Reporting for AP, Vivian Salama and Zeina Karam report on the tragic inevitability as described by  Airwars, a group that monitors the war against the Islamic State and tracks civilian casualties.

"The coalition's war against ISIL has inevitably caused civilian casualties, certainly far more than the two deaths Centcom presently admits to," notes [the Airwars website]. " Yet it's also clear that in this same period, many more civilians have been killed by Syrian and Iraqi government forces, by Islamic State and by various rebel and militia groups operating on both sides of the border."

So far, Airwars reports more than 8,000 strikes, estimating 20,000 Islamic State deaths and up to 200 deaths.

Some context: Totals of civilian deaths caused by the Islamic State are notably lacking.

Also, monitoring groups suggest that the Syrian government and Assad regime are responsible for many more deaths than the Islamic State - an estimated 250,000 during the four-year civil war in Syria. "Between January and July [2015], Assad’s military and pro-government militias killed 7,894 people, while the Islamic State killed 1,131, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain," reports Hugh Naylor for the Washington Post. 

Such casualty counts are likely low, with reports of mass graves found in areas near Sinjar, overtaken by Iraqi Kurdish forces: One is reported to contain 78 women between the ages of 40 and 80 years old and the other had bodies of about 50 men, both likely Yazidis. Authorities anticipate finding other grave sites, reports Nabih Bulos for the Los Angeles Times. 

After the attacks in Paris that killed more than 125 and injured more than 300, the international community will likely join with Russia, and targeting the Islamic State will take priority over removal of Assad as Syria's leader.

At least eight governors in the United States are making moves to block Syrian refugees in Texas, Massachusetts, Indiana, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Michigan, reports Nolan D. McCaskill for Politico. 

Many contend that ground troops are required for thorough defeat of the Islamic State, but citizens throughout the West resist sending their soldiers and expect Muslim nations in the Middle East to defend their territory - though it must be noted that the conflict in Syria is highly complex as the United States supports Kurdish rebels and Turkey, a member of NATO and US ally, targets those same fighters described as successful against the Islamic State. Russia, too, targets rebels who oppose the Assad regime.

An imperfect solution for the Syrian refugee crisis, one grounded in gender and age bias: conduct screenings and open borders for women with children under age 15 and adults older than age 50.A tough for the international community.

Terrorist attacks on civilian targets in Europe, North America and beyond are anticipated, too.  The Islamic State is a disturbing problem global in scale.

"Attacks by Islamic State terrorists in Syria, Iraq and beyond pose consequences for refugees fleeing communities throughout the Middle East and moderate Muslims," YaleGlobal reminds. "Globalization of communications, travel and more ensures that regarding violence, hatred, terrorism as routine for the region with a population of more than 200 million can threaten global security."


Photo of refugees at Budapest Keleti railway station in Hungary, courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov and Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, October 22

Allure of security

Fear of Beauty addresses the challenges for military and security personnel in protecting facilities in Afghanistan during the war. Military representatives and security details must walk a fine line between a show of force versus a show of respect, cooperation and trust. Such personnel make difficult decisions on mingling with local people in communities without fear and, by their very presence, challenging long-held opinions.

One line of questioning during a hearing of the House Select Committee on Benghazi is telling. Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State and presidential candidate, testified in response to questions from Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia.


Clinton suggested she could not micro-manage or second-guess the assessments from security professional on the ground, and Westmoreland insisted on protection for US facilities such as the compound in Benghazi.

Westmoreland:  I'm not saying shut it down. I'm saying protect it....  And when you say security professionals, I'm not trying to be disparaging with anybody, but I don't know who those folks were but ...

Clinton: Well, they are people who risked their lives.  

Westmoreland: ... but it's just my little opinion that they were not very professional when it came to protecting people

Clinton later returned to defending  capabilities of security personnel protecting diplomatic and other US staff. 

Clinton: I must add, Congressman, the diplomatic security professionals are among the best in the world. I would put them up against anybody. And I just cannot allow any comment to be in the record in any way criticizing or disparaging them. They have kept Americans safe in two wars and in a lot of terrible situations over the last many years. I trust them with my life, you trust them with yours when you are on Codels. they deserve better, and they deserve all the support that Congress can give them because they are doing a really hard job very well.

Westmoreland: Well, ma'am, all I can say is that they miss something here and we lost four Americans."

The committee was established to investigate events surrounding the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi September 11, 2012.  Assignments in countries with extremists and insurgengies are difficult. Any encounter, even ones with a child, can turn into a deadly suicide bombing or attack. Security teams must constantly observe surroundings and nuances to make instant assessments. Security teams must also assess the courage of those whom they protect.

 Such decisions are a constant worry for the Army Ranger in Fear of Beauty: 

As they turned the corner, a young girl emerged from the brush, unnoticed by the driver or Cameron. Joey gripped his M16, and Habib's hand covered his side arm.... Smiling, she approached the Humvee, running her hand along the side and letting it rest there, as if posing for a photo.... Startled the driver turned. A more skittish soldier might have shot her - he fervent wish of every extremist. 


Old rules or codes of conduct do not apply in conflict areas like Afghanistan and Libya and even the security forces on the ground struggle over such decisions.

Photo of Benghazi, courtesy of Dennixo and Wikimedia Commons.




Thursday, October 1

Freedom

A friend is working in the Great Lakes region of Africa and talked about traveling by bus from a small community in the southern part of Zambia to the capital city. New to the country, she looked forward the jostling three-hour ride, chatting with seatmates and catching quick glimpses of the countryside. Soon after the bus got rolling, a man stood and started pacing back and forth in the aisle, issuing what was for her a surprise sermon. The preacher shouted about Jeremiah, one of the major prophets of the Bible who had the lonely task of warning about the judgment of God and the people of Judah who refused to listen about the threat of invasion.

The passengers had little choice but to listen to the message on impending threats, the need for caution, fear and shame. He railed on about Jeremiah's warnings, frequently pausing to lean over a passenger and challenge the individual with the question, "Do you believe in the Lord God Almighty?"

The incident was nerve-wracking, calling to mind similar incidents in northern areas of Africa, where extremists board buses and demand passengers to recite a quote or two from the Koran to prove they are not infidels.

Some passengers pointedly ignored him. Most nodded nervously. He did not confront my friend, but the  sermon went on for 90 minutes, intruding on any plans for passengers to converse, read or contemplate the scenery. Shortly before his destination, he passed a hat for donations. Not all gave. Videos of the clean-cut preachers in dress shirts and ties dating back a few years can be found on YouTube, and my friend was told the preachers receive a free ride in exchange for a sermon.

 There are varying statistics for the demographics of Zambia: The CIA World Factbook suggests that 75 percent are Protestant, 20 percent Catholic, and the remaining a mix of Hindu, Muslim and indigenous tribal religions. Others report the percentage of those who are non-Christian may run as high as 12 percent. No surprise that there are reports of Muslim preachers are taking up the practice, too.Christianity is the country's official religion, but the constitution protects the freedom of conscience or religion for all. Religious instruction is required for grades one through nine: "Religious education focus on Christian teachings but also incorporates comparative studies of Islam, Hinduism, and traditional beliefs," reports the Zambia 2013 International Religious Freedom Report.

A lack of consideration by any one religion can diminish faith in general among the wider populace. A generous spirit, open minds, support of equality for all including women and men, common courtesy, all these can restore one's faith in human nature and the power of religion.

In Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, characters must wrestle with doubt over longstanding religious beliefs, especially when values come in conflict with protecting the ones they love.  And as an author, I feel very fortunate that few suggest that the topic is inappropriate for a mystery novel. I had one memorable experience a few weeks after Fear of Beauty. I was on a panel for a book festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, an older woman snapped, questioning why I would even think about writing about the Muslims in Afghanistan. But such a response has been a rarity. Most readers express curiosity about the books - and especially so in rural areas of Michigan, North Dakota, Georgia and Louisiana. So few are closed-minded or mean-spirited, and as I have said before on these pages, our values are strengthened by comparing and contrasting those held by others.   
 
Jeremiah offered another warning that may not have been mentioned during the bus ride: "From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit." 6:13.

Photo of a road in southern Zambia, courtesy of Amantia Phalloides, Namwianga Mission and Wikimedia Commons.


Thursday, September 24

One of many

The world has nearly 3 times as many people today as the year when I was born. And the global population continues to grow, poised to reach at least 10 billion by the end of this century. I was once one of 2.7 billion and now am one of 7.3 billion My grandfather who was born at the turn of the last century, 1899, was one of 1.5 billion.


Every billion changes the character of the world, reducing the area of wild and open space, leaving fewer resources for other species and future generations.

Many applaud the Pope's call to for action to stem climate change, yet "One of America’s leading scientists has dismissed as 'raving nonsense' the pope’s call for action on climate change – so long as the leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics rejects the need for population control," writes Suzanne Goldenberg for the Guardian. "In a commentary in the journal Nature, Paul Ehrlich, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, argues that Pope Francis is simply wrong in trying to fight climate change without also addressing the additional strain on global resources from population rise."

The population of less developed nations is growing at a faster pace than in wealthier nations of Europe, North America and parts of Asia: "There is not a single issue among the sustainable development goals – including poverty, hunger, housing, education, employment, health, gender equality, human rights and environment – that would not benefit from reducing high rates of population growth," writes Joseph Chamie for YaleGlobal.

As explained in Allure of Deceit, the Central Intelligence Agency tracks such trends. Extremely high or low fertility rates, those that out of balance with resources like water or food can pose a security risk for neighboring nations. The countries with the highest fertility rates:

Niger, average of 6.89 children per woman
Mali, 6.16 children
Burundi, 6.14
Somalia, 6.08
Uganda, 5.97
Burkina Faso, 5.93
Zambia, 5.76
Malawi, 5.66
Angola, 5.43
South Sudan, 5.43
Afghanistan, 5.43

Notably, Afghanistan's fertility rate fell sharply, near half, since the US invasion in 2001. Countries with the lowest fertility rates:

Singapore, 0.8
Macau, 0.93
Taiwan, 1.1
Hong Kong, 1.17
South Korea, 1.25
British Virgin Islands 1.25
Bosnia and Herezegovina, 1.26
Lithuania, 1.29
Montserrai, 1.29
Ukraine, 1.30

From the first chapter, Allure of Deceit explores population growth and family planning from the perspectives of a remote village in Afghanistan, a conservative director of a small charity, and the director of one of the world's largest charitable foundations:

Pearl Hanson was a Texas conservative, practical and stubborn. Despite limited tools and her brash ways, her program had raised awareness about the economic benefits of small families. The link between wealth and family planning prompted even devout women to pursue methods of contraception on their own. Pearl understood and didn't cast blame.

The book is a murder mystery layered with social mystery. Why do some believers bitterly oppose family planning and contraception for others and yet practice these techniques on their own? why do they resist making contraception freely available for society as a whole, especially the young, and then express surprise about unwanted pregnancies?  why do they refuse to fund programs on family planning at the national or international level and then resist the desperate migrants who long to escape conflict and terror in the Middle East or poverty and hunger and lack of opportunities in Africa? why do some resist arguments that access to birth control reduces abortion? William Saletan writes for Slate about studies on the failure rate for specific methods of contraception and how that correlates with abortion.

Shame is a powerful weapon and one that knows no boundaries. Once a powerful authority like a parent or politician or Pope suggests that contraception is wrong, the sentiment spreads, planting fear and doubt. War and economic uncertainty spread doubt, too. Women do not want to commit to raising a child in a dangerous world. So thoughtful women, including many Catholics in the United States, ignore those who wield shame. One way or another, mothers strive to be responsible and avoid having children they cannot afford.

Photo of Afghan market, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard and Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, August 15

Quality

I was once a huge fan of mystery novels. My admiration for suspense, intriguing characters, surprising puzzles and thrilling plots led me to center my writing on the genre.


But lately, the genre has been less satisfying. The number of books has exploded - and BJ Gallagher has written about these trends for Huffington Post - and this goes for mysteries, too.

But the quality of books may be in decline. Perhaps I've become jaded, impatient, and I finish only about two out of every three books I read anymore.

The reasons are many. Blurbs and jacket descriptions do not deliver on their promises. Publishers encourage authors to churn out one or more books per year. Some series rely on tired formulas. Authors invest more in publicity than editing, proofreading, storytelling, or research. Publishers, reviewers, fans herd in pursuing big names. Authors no longer allow series to each their natural conclusion, and heirs to a story line hire writers to keep the story going.

The Statistical Abstract of the United States reports that a total of 11,022 books were published in 1950, and fewer than 2000 were fiction. By 1965, the number jumped to more than 20,000 of which 1,615 were new fiction. For 2013, print books by traditional publisher totaled more than 304,000 and the total of non-print books was estimated at more than 1.1 million. The 2014 Bowker release adds, "In traditional publishing, Fiction and Juvenile genres continue to dominate the market."

Reviewers cannot read all books, and bookstores cannot stock all books. Globalization combined with word of mouth ensures that most readers can herd around the same dozen or so book each year.

And even those favorites can disappoint.

Still, readers persist in discovering and new writers and bringing their stories to the public's attention, including The Martian and Still Alice.

Photo of Yale Law Library, courtesy of Nick Allen and Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 19

Common home

Muslim scholars are joining Pope Francis suggesting that climate change is caused by humans and threatening Earth.

"The views of the scholars – some of the strongest yet expressed on climate from within the Muslim community – are contained in a draft declaration on climate change to be launched officially at a major Islamic symposium in Istanbul in mid-August," reports Kieran Cooke for Climate News Network. "The draft declaration has been compiled by the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, a UK-based charity focused on environmental protection and the management of natural resources. The declaration mirrors many of the themes contained in a recent encyclical issued by Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church."

Criticism is directed at the world's most advanced economies as well as oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia.  The declaration includes quotes from the Koran, such as 16:65:  "And Allah has sent down water from the cloud and therewith given life to the earth after its death; most surely there is a sign in this for a people who would listen."

Regardless of faith, all people share a common home and should have an interest in protecting and caring for the Earth. There is no escaping climate change. "The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change,” the pope writes in his encyclical. “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”

The pope mixes a scolding with eloquent respect for the Earth's land and waters: "The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected."

Researchers are studying climate change and producing models to forecast impacts. Models for the United States are specific and the National Climate Assessment offers projects for each region of the country.

Challenges for a underdeveloped nation like Afghanistan include a lack of baseline data, lack of meteorological stations in most parts, low literacy rates and a lack of trained personnel, explains Ghulam Mohd Malikyar in "The Impacts of Climate Change for Afghanistan."  Key hazards for the country include droughts, abrupt heavy rainfall, flooding doing to fast thaws in snow and ice, rising temperatures, heavy winds, severe storms and desertification, he writes, adding that all this disrupts agriculture. Other challenges include a "Lack of linkage with regional and international climate change networks" and "Low levels of awareness of the current and potential impacts of climate change" as well as "Limited analytical capability."

The country is working to promote awareness of future variability and potential for extreme events, as well as the need for sustainable development.

These trends along with the unnerving signs of climate change - volatile temperatures that destroy crops, dust storms, drought, water shortages, and even unusual snow - run throughout Allure of Deceit and Fear of Beauty. The villagers of Laashekoh do not have the benefit of weather reports, and must take each day as it comes, and the land means everything to Parsaa, the protagonist of Allure of Deceit. From Allure:

....Paul declined. He had to visit other village and expected snowfall.
"Surely not yet," Parsaa said. "The air is not that cold."
Paul smiled. "You will see over the next day... temperatures will plunge before tomorrow evening."

As noted the prologue notes in Fear: "We live in a land where extremes reign." Climate change is a security and economic issue, no longer easy to shove to the back of our minds. Modern literature increasingly reflects these concerns.

Photo of small village nestled in the mountains of southern Afghanistan, courtesy of Mark Ray, USACE, and Wikimedia Commons.














Tuesday, June 30

Two characters

I relish reading novels that share a setting with those in my books, and make note of the similarities and differences. Such joy is not shared by all authors.

When I first started writing and Alaska was my first setting, the editor suggested I write to prominent authors in the state to request blurbs. Authors must prepare for rejection - not just from publishers, but from reviewers, readers and other authors. The round of requests did not go well. I followed the editor's advice, and soon received a chilly reply from a popular author who explained she would not read other books set in the state because she did not want to be accused of borrowing others' ideas. Of course, more than a decade later, over the next decade the same writer inevitably tackled the same topics as Alaska Gray, now out of print. Another author, once a favorite of mine, snapped that she wrote literary novels and would not be caught dead reviewing a mystery novel

Needless to say, I've since been shy about asking authors for blurbs or reviews. Besides, as a reader, I've read too many glowing author blurbs attached to horribly written books and often asked myself and other authors, "Did we read the same book?" Of course, positive comments are understandable - turning down a colleague is not easy, and skilled writers can unearth some redeeming quality for a review - but excessive, hyperbolic praise draws red flags. Readers doubt their own judgments, and some eventually give up on an entire genre - mysteries in particular.

Such experiences have likely contributed in some small way to making me more open to exploring new settings. The latest is Afghanistan. And I do not mind reading or commenting on books that share the setting.

That said, I just finished Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman. Like most books set in Afghanistan, the novel is more violent than Fear of Beauty or Allure of Deceit. Still, the novel is beautiful, lyrical, and I recommend it highly to readers who have enjoyed my books.

The similarities are rich and rewarding. While reading the novel's early pages, I felt at home. Aziz's parents would get along with Parsaa and Sofi. Parsaa and Mumtaz would respect each other. Aziz and Saddiq could well be friends. Aziz is probably a bit older than Saddiq but both are restless, thoughtful, and resourceful, especially outdoors, whether climbing mountainsides or trees. Both fall in love, and both have older brothers named Ali. Saddiq's brother is murdered, and Aziz's is the victim of a bombing at a marketplace.

As with any young Afghan, Saddiq and Aziz must cope with constant uncertainty, never sure what the next day or moment might bring. Each must engage in constant calculation and deceit to survive and to help others of their choosing to survive.   

The books share so much in terms of atmosphere, tone, characterization, themes, philosophical exchanges and even pet birds - a magpie in Blue on Green and the mynah in Allure of Deceit. The characters in these books think alike. Notably, Mortaza in Ackerman's book, like Parsaa in Allure, rejects charity: "Those boys need an example of strength. The promise of charity has paralyzed them."

Yet the plots could not be more different. Saddiq, keenly aware of individual motivation and need, has less reason to seek revenge. After losing his family, Aziz becomes a soldier, a murderer, a terrorist. He finds revenge, but that's not enough to renew the bonds with his brother.

Before losing his family, Aziz's upbringing is very much like Saddiq's. Aziz's memories are reminiscent of Fear of Beauty, when militants overrun and disrupt the village: "We always knew of the war, but it was a distant thing. When it finally came, groups of fighters arrived in our village They offered protection to the spingaris in exchange for another tax on the land. We never spoke to these fighters, the spingaris did. They played all the groups off each other, making assurances they could never keep. It was a dangerous game. My family tried to ignore the war. We were happy with our piece of earth, a home, food. It was enough. But this didn't last. Eventually our village was taught that everyone must make a choice." (page 117)

In other circumstances, Saddiq might have followed in Aziz's footsteps. If the fictional village of Laashekoh were larger and under siege, like Gomal in Ackerman's book... If Saddiq had lost most of his family and scrambled to provide for remaining members...

But no, Aziz is alone and Saddiq is not. Saddiq's life is more orderly, more comfortable, not peppered with treacherous humiliations. He's not forced into settling life-and-death moral quandaries with every encounter. The two young men are trustworthy, but for only a select few. Each can easily lie to family or the closest friends. Aziz lies to escape his many losses and perhaps in an inept way, to reduce mental anguish for his brother. Saddiq's deceit is in pursuit of his own version of justice.

It's no wonder that Parsaa, leader of Laashekoh, does everything in his power to avoid foreign or Afghan fighters. As Ackerman suggests, the small lives we build can unravel at any moment.
  
 

Thursday, June 4

Identity crisis

Parents now find themselves on the front lines of battling extremists.

Pentagon officials and media pundits are appalled by the handful of teens rushing off to join Islamic State extremists fighting in Syria and Iraq. Intelligence agencies have estimated that 150 Americans are among the estimated 25,000 who have joined the Islamic State to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Others, like the Tsarnaev brothers, act as so-called lone wolves.

The extremists recruit with propaganda, and are adept with social media, presenting their twisted rampage as a grand adventure with up to 2000 Twitter accounts, according to a census reported by the Brookings Institution. At risk are teens and young adults who feel inferior and wrestle with their place in the world, many raised by parents who are resentful and bitter themselves. A minor identity crisis is trying out new clothing, hairstyles and activities that rebel against expectations of parents and teachers. A major crisis is running away from home, engaging in substance abuse, joining a cult or extremist group.

More than 50 years ago, psychologist Erik Erickson described how those aged 12 to 18 develop a sense of self and way of viewing their role in the world. Teens “perversely test each other’s capacity to pledge fidelity” and “The readiness for such testing also explains the appeal which simple and cruel totalitarian doctrines have on the minds of the youth of such countries and classes as have lost or are losing their group identities,” he wrote in Childhood and Society, a recipient of both Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

His writings about identity crisis are relevant today.

People construct their identities throughout life, but the feelings of crisis are particularly acute during adolescence and soon afterward. We resist parental rules. In my case, I resented my father who prohibited me from driving or going out with friends. Though we lived in the same home, I stopped talking to him for nearly two years. Eager for independence, I skipped school, took a bus into the city and ate lunch in bars, dressing in casual business attire. I remained aloof from others, pointedly not ordering alcohol to avoid being asked for a driver’s license. I selected a setting and attire that made me feel sophisticated and in control.

Constant comparisons over social media, intense competition for colleges and jobs, and young celebrity stories of spectacular success complicate identity formation for today’s teens. Dependence on one’s parents can now stretch out to age 25 or beyond – both for those pursuing higher education and those who end schooling early and struggle to compete in a high-tech world and a troubled job market.

Parents and teachers prepare for identity crises in advance, reducing the lure of extremism.
Too much nagging can push young adults to unwanted activities. Parents and schools must select battles, avoid excessive rules and resist automatic dismissal of young ideas. Praise good choices in school, activities and friendships. Do not get caught up in petty details on odd clothes, hairstyles.
Early on, parents can introduce children to a diverse range of activities and find time to work on a project together – if only a few hours a week gardening, cooking, or volunteering at an animal shelter, senior center, or church program.

Let children experience some failures early in life so that they learn to strive for comebacks and seek new pursuits. Be grateful to teachers in middle school who challenge students and hand out low grades for lack of effort. Be supportive and good-natured when a tryout for a team or other activity does not succeed.

Children and teens observe their parents' attitudes and responses to problems. Parents can model anger and resentment, blaming others for their difficulties. Or they can demonstrate calm, courage and tolerance during difficult periods.

From an early age, children should be taught to avoid prejudice and those who discourage education, debate or humor.

Finally, parents and schools can rely on the narratives in literature or current events that demonstrate the futility of extremism. Erickson himself wrote in Identity: Youth and Crisis: “No wonder that in young people not inclined toward literary reflection, such deep-seated negative identities can be reabsorbed only by a turn to militancy, if not transient violence.”

Photo of mother and child in Farrah Health Clinic, courtesy of Master Sgt. Tracy DeMarco and Wikimedia Commons. 

Friday, May 29

Quid pro quo

Charity comes with a catch.

Yes, donors intend to improve lives, do good, help others. But the donations serve other purposes. The donors define the "good" that is accomplished. The recipients can be empowered, given some measure of decision-making capacity. But the donors must set conditions, and they use charitable programs to add a glossy humanitarian veneer to their reputations.

In Allure of Deceit, one of the characters - a victim before first page begins - has a reputation for critiquing charity. She points out the origin of the word "forgiving" is "giving" and how charitable practices can imply that recipients are wrongdoers, weak and deserving of no control.

Charities must tread carefully not to insult those they serve, and that requires lowered expectations on compliance or cooperation. As a result, charity is not the most efficient form for delivering needed services.

The description of Petra Nemcova's gala for the Happy Hearts Fund in the New York Times article by Deborah Sontag, "An Award for Bill Clinton Cam With $500,000 for his Foundation," bears eerie resemblance to the first chapter of Allure of Deceit. 

Orange from Songag: "She special-ordered heart-shaped chocolate parfaits, heart-shaped tiramisu and, because orange is the charity's color, an orange carpet rather than a red one. She imported a Swiss auctioneer and handed out orange rulers to serve as auction paddles playfully threatening to use hers to spank the highest bidder for an Ibiza vacation. The gala cost $363, 413."

Green in Allure: "Lime, peacock, moss, sea mist, forest and fern - gowns in every shade of green swirled about the ballroom floor. Aromas of mint and rosemary drifted from all-green centerpieces.... The meal was vegetarian, with ridiculously delicate portion sizes for the salads, fruit, and grilled vegetables.... Such attention to detail did not prevent the wrong people from making decisions or the wrong groups from receiving awards."

Life and art go hand in hand.

Sontag's story focuses on Nemcova offering a $500,000 contribution to the Clinton Foundation, presumably in exchange for his attendance at the gala to accept an award: "Happy Hearts’ former executive director believes the transaction was a 'quid pro quo,' which rerouted donations intended for a small charity with the concrete mission of rebuilding schools after natural disasters to a large foundation with a broader agenda and a budget 100 times bigger." Happy Hearts and Clinton Foundation officials deny that the donation was solicited.

The article echoes the purpose of the gala in Allure of Deceit: The foundation "operated in more than thirty nations and could be counted on to distribute at least $400 million annually for a mix of organizations. GlobalConnect was influential, yet it limited support to some fifty groups per year. Competition was intense."

In Allure of Deceit, Lydia Sendry is powerful, overseeing the world's largest charitable foundation. She wants to change the world, but she also wants to find out who murdered her only son.

The time has come to analyze society's dependence on charitable giving, especially for basic services like health care or education, and perhaps end tax write-offs for all charitable donations.

Note:  On September 1, Charity Navigator has given the Clinton Foundation four stars, its highest rating, after a review of the finances.

Review copies are available. Photo of reception, unrelated to charity, courtesy of  Tracy Hunter and Wikimedia Commons. 

Tuesday, May 12

Shrike

The shrike may have all the appearance of a sweet songbird, but it's a predator known for catching small birds or rodents, and impaling them on thorns or sticks for later dining. The eating behavior is described early in Allure of Deceit:

Parsaa did not let up swinging the scythe, carving gentle arcs into the field, the wheat falling in line on either side, while keeping his eyes on the shrike. Suddenly, the bir dove into a nearby section of uncut wheat and emerged with a plump mouse. Clamping its beak tight, the shrike returned to the edge area. Once there, the shrike took careful aim and impaled the mouse against a long thorn. Stepping back, the bird leisurely pecked at its writhing meal. 

"With every swing of the blade, Parsaa was a co-conspirator.

Afghanistan has eight of the world's 31 species of shrikes. The one that appears in Allure of Deceit could be the bay-backed version, a bird that can be found in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka."A strikingly coloured, delicately built and fine-billed shrike, the bay-backed shrike is a beautiful bird of South Asia," notes Wildscreen Arkive. The colors include soft gray, warm chestnut with solid black markings. "The most distinctive feature of this bird is the black facial mask extending from the side of the neck through the eyes to the based of the hooked bill."

The bird's habitat includes cultivated fields and scrubby areas, notes Bird Forum. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a leader in the study and conservation of birds,  collects their songs and the bay-backed shrike can be heard here. 

Photo of the bay-backed shrike in India, courtesy of J.M. Garg and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 5

Clutter

Reducing clutter can keep us calm.

Reducing clutter requires a regular assessment of belongings. But just because an item has not been used for a year or more does not necessarily mean they should be tossed. Place such belongings in storage and label the boxes. Opening the box a few months later can offer a pleasant surprise and new appreciation - or perhaps the realization that the time has come to give the possessions away.

And then there is mental clutter. This requires regular assessment of routines, shedding unwanted priorities, distractions and anxiety.  Ryan Nicodemus explains in an essay for the Minimalists: "...once I decided I’d had enough of the mental clutter, I had no choice but to to change my circumstances - I had no choice but to remove myself from circumstances that added to my mental clutter. I stopped associating with certain people, I changed my spending habits, I downsized my possessions. I started with myself, and I changed my circumstances." Nicodemus co-authored of Live a Meaningful Life with Joshua Fields Millburn.

Farnoosh Brock of Prolific Living urges focusing on just one thought at a time and not letting competing ideas bombard the mind.

Individuals can become more than our circumstances, and this becomes obvious with some streamlining. For example, minimize technology. Cellphones can become a ball and chain, forcing users to be at the beck and call of family members, co-workers and friends.

Warning, though: Pushing others to reduce clutter can make them cling to the oddest of possessions. Individuals must make their own choices, and attempts to control another individual almost always backfires.

Writing the books set in Afghanistan, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, prompted appreciation for the comforts in my life and the value of simplicity. Before making a purchase or a commitment, Stephanie Vozza, interviewing Scott Eblin, author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The  Mindfulness Alternative, for Fast Company, suggests asking one's self:  "Is this necessary?"

And the answer is often no.

Photo of Afghan market in 2009, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard, and Wikimedia Commons.


Tuesday, April 28

Forests

Laashekoh, the fictional village that is the setting for Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, is unusual in many ways. But perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this village is the many trees. In truth, Afghanistan has few forests. A lack of forest management, few government regulations, minimal enforcement combined with war and tribal competition led to rapid deforestation - another version of the tragedy of the commons. Trees are cut for fuel and building. Without replanting, the soil has eroded, discouraging replanting and regeneration.

"Commercial timber harvesting is illegal in Afghanistan - which leaves a massive smuggling industry...," report Sean Carberry and Sultan Faizy for NPR. With so much conflict and corruption, preserving trees is a low priority.

All of Afghanistan's forests could be gone in the next 30 years. "As the forests go, so will lots of wildlife species, further damaging Afghanistan's biodiversity," reports Afghanistan Online. "Moreover, not only will Afghanistan suffer economically, but there will also be an increase in fatalities and damages as a result of flooding and even avalanches.

Afghanistan's hillsides were not always so bare. "Good policy and planning, forest law, sufficient budget, specialists and experiments, technology and sufficient time are needed to solve this problem," notes Cropwatch.  

A few forests remain. Varying elevations contribute to specific micro-climates, and Laashekoh is one such place. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that only about 2 percent of Afghanistan is forested, not including small patches of other wooded land.

Campaigns to replant trees are underway. Up to 25 million tree seedlings were planted near urban areas, reported IRIN in 2010, though only half could be expected to survive because of water shortages.

The Afghan Child Project describes entire towns without trees and launched projects to plant trees near schools. Each child planted a tree and cared for it, sharing his or her own water.

The International Security Assistance Force donated more than 400,000 almond, pine and other seedlings in 2012. "The trees do not only play an important role for the environment, but also for the psychological health of the residents," notes Afghanistan Today, with independent reports financed by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Many Afghans attach great cultural value to trees." One vendor reported selling more than 150 saplings a day.

Some trees mentioned in Allure of Deceit are transplants from other lands.

The novel refers to a stand of black locust trees near the village of Laashekoh. The tree is not an Afghan native plant, but saplings were purchased and planted early in the 20th century. The plant has since been shown to produce rapid growth and high yield, according to researchers from the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois. Trimming the trees in early years also encourages more branch growth.

A black locust can reach 30 meters in height and grows quickly at the start, with growth rates going into decline after 30 years, reports J.C. Huntley for the US Forest Service.

Likewise, the stone pine, which endures drought well, grows fast in its early years, reaching a height of 15 feet in five years. Full height is not reached for another 50 years. Pines like Pinus longifolia is moderately fast-growing.

A yew, cyprus, banyan, chestnut or pine can live 1,000 years or more. Without much thought or planning, communities too often cut down trees that provide shade, soil protection and beauty and cannot be easily replaced.

The photo "Morning in Badakshan": John Scott Rafoss, Afghanistan Matters and Wikimedia Commons  The photo of conifers in the snow: Mark Jurrens and Wikimedia Commons. Photo of tree stand taken from a helicopter: Andrew Smith, Afghanistan Matters and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, April 21

A plan

Calm resilience is better than panic during a time of crisis. When a job, marriage, friendship, activity is not going well - that is the time to assess priorities, opportunities and dreams.

For many the economic crisis meant a loss job, need to downsize to a smaller home, less shopping. The crisis also contributed to simpler lifestyles, with greater focus on home, family, career or health.

One key to setting priorities is to imagine your future self and think about where that person wants to be five years from now, ten years from now. What milestones do you want to reach and what are the strategies for achieving them? Once the priorities are known, women can immerse themselves in the activities and people that contribute. They can allocate time and work on projects and activities that build the dreams with every day. 

Draft a plan. Putting dreams into writing makes them more tangible and reinforces our determination to turn them into reality. Literacy is a first step to empowering women and turning their hopes into reality, as suggested by USAID. 

Find a close friend, family member or mentor who shares similar goals or supports your goals. Monitoring progress can be easier with a partner. But focus on "doing" more and "talking" less.

Photo of Afghan women in the Support to Women in Skills Entrepreneurship and Literacy project, courtesy of USAID, One Woman Makes a Difference and Wikimedia Commons. 

Wednesday, April 15

Treacherous

Five  aid workers with Save the Children were found shot to death five weeks after they were abducted in Trinkot, the capital of Uruzgan province.

"A spokesman for the provincial governor blamed the Taleban for their deaths after their bodies were found on Friday, saying the militant groups had demanded a prisoner exchange," reports AFP. The article points out that Humanitarian Outcomes describes Afghanistan as the most dangerous place for relief staff in the world in 2013.

So many Afghans are grateful for the aid. It takes but a few to ruin the work and connections. Aid workers are an easy target for extremists. Allure of Deceit describes the resentments, confusion and potential danger as one foundation director uses funds, programs and personnel in Afghanistan to investigate the death of her only son and his wife.

Charitable work can have a hidden agenda.  "The road to hell definitely is paved with good intentions in this well-written, intelligent, engrossing thriller," writes reviewer Si Dunn.

To request a review copy, contact Cheryl Quimba at CQjimba @ prometheusbooks.com.

The photo of wheatfields in Uruzgan province, courtesy of the US Department of Defense and Wikimedia Commons, offers a small  hint to why some might fear the change that comes with aid and global connections.


Tuesday, April 14

Old friends

Nothing brings a wave of nostalgia than re-visiting an old neighborhood where we lived long ago, walking old trails or reading a book or watching a film enjoyed long ago, especially during a pivotal point in our lives. It's a reacquainting with our former selves and feelings. It's a checkup on our goals and dreams.


I never expected to enjoy a Broadway musical revival. But when a tour stop for Pippin, the Musical, was announced on our local public television channel, I immediately ordered tickets for the best seats available. Because for some reason, while attending high school, I fell in love with the show without ever having seen it – perhaps because it won Tony awards in 1973 or because the snow originated as a student production at a nearby college campus – Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. At any rate, I purchased the album, one of about 20 in my collection at that time.

During my senior year in high school, the following summer, and the first year of college, that was the album played over and over, with its haunting and invigorating music, the story of a young man who does not want to be king but wants to be extraordinary. He doesn't care how. By the show's end, Pippin realizes the truest happiness comes from family, friends and life's simple pleasures. 

The Pippin revival combines Broadway music, dancing and acting with the wild acrobatics of 7 Doigts de la Main to songs like "We've Got Magic to Do." The show offers a powerful message about the search for identity that stands the test of time in this era of social media. And the show was magical for another reason. As the feelings and dreams of an 18-year-old came rushing back, there was comfort and gratitude that the two selves, more than 40 years apart, would get along quite well. 

Some art stands the test of time. Now, come on, "We've Got Magic to Do" ... 

Photo of cast, courtesy of Pippin, the Musical. 

Wednesday, April 8

Agenda

Charity can have a hidden agenda.

"The United States and Saudi Arabia on Tuesday sanctioned a Pakistani charity allegedly financing violent extremist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan under the guise of humanitarian work," reports Jason Lange for Reuters. "The sanctions target the Al-Furqan Foundation Welfare Trust, which the US Treasury said had changed its name to avoid prior US sanctions."

Dubious charitable organizations have become a tool for funneling funds to illegal activities. Allure of Deceit is the story of a powerful foundation director who uses funds and programs in Afghanistan to investigate the death of her son. And another individual uses the charity to manipulate extremists to murder a foundation critic.

Name changes, mission statements, corporate partnerships - without some strict accountability, all can be manipulated for purposes other than charitable giving.

Photo of a woman begging, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 







Tuesday, April 7

Secret judges

Our choices and assessments of books expose us as much as those whom we judge.

Not so long ago, these pages noted: "If  readers are candid and thorough, public reading lists like Goodreads - simply admitting what we like and don't like and why - can expose our personalities, levels of socialization, character traits, fears, choices, and more. Of course, many readers do not list every book they read, and others tame their criticism. A book that provokes strong, negative reactions can be as influential and powerful as one that invites our praise."

The author Salman Rushdie has learned this the hard way.

"Sir Salman Rushdie, the Booker Prize-winning author, has accidentally shared his book tastes with the world, after reviewing books on a public forum he believed was private," reports Hannah Furness for the Telegraph. "According to a Sunday newspaper, the author had been rating novels on Goodreads, the popular review forum, under the assumption his settings were private."

He claims now that he was "fooling around."  That he did not understand the workings of social media.

He could have remained quiet. Most onlookers would have doubted that the account was really his. And he should stand by his assessments unless they were motivated by envy or meanness.

Authors have many friends in the industry, and their candid judgments would decrease those numbers. Some authors solve this dilemma by refusing to participate in Goodreads but pleading with readers to post reviews. Others use their own two-tier system, doling out either four or five stars to the books they read. Most authors decline to review books they did not enjoy. Some will review old favorites from years ago without a re-read. Others may not read the books in its entirety.

It takes courage to take a public stance by writing a book or to express an opinion about others' books. It takes imagination to discover new authors and styles on one's own, without relying on the masses who spin in circles, chasing down a few authors.

 The consequences of ranking books on social media poses big consequence for the book publishing industry. Authors are lucky if readers finish 20 books in a year. Praise on social media - and the lack of courage - ensures that more global readers are drawn to a shrinking and cliquey group of authors like moths to a flame.

Photo of flame courtesy of MarcusObal and Wikimedia Commons. 


Parenting

Parents could be on the front lines of preventing extremism.

Parents of teens do not realize how much their children observe and assess  their parents' attitudes, routines and responses to problems. Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, both set in Afghanistan, demonstrate how families shape future citizens. With each crisis and disagreement, young characters could move toward moderation or extremism.

Do parents model anger and resentment for their children and blame others for their difficulties? Or do they work hard, demonstrating calm and courage during the life's most difficult periods?

In Allure of Deceit, one young character questions how his parents handle punishment of young girls in the village: "there was less pressure to sort out why he disagreed so vehemently with his parents on what was moral and what was good. It was terrifying to think his parents could be so wrong.... Saddiq wondered if his parents sensed the discrepancy in what his parents asked their sons to do. If his parents had secrets, so could he."

By the story's end, the character does confide in his father, and the man is capable of resisting attempts to nag or impose excessive controls.

Teens are open to new experiences, and parents must select their battles carefully. Teenagers are curious and trying to construct their own identity. Parents can monitor trends attractive for their children. Respecting the good choices early on, talking about those choices, can guide a person away from extremism. Parents should offer praise for the good choices in school, activities, friendships - and avoid focusing on petty details like odd clothes or hair styles. 

Some failures are inevitable for both parents and children, and it's useful to experience it early in life. Parents should not try to insulate their children against every failure. Be thankful to the teachers in middle school who do not hesitate to hand out failing grades. Be supportive and accepting when a tryout for a team or event does not work out. Tea

Finally, parents should find time to do activities with young teens, gardening, cooking, community work, volunteering at an animal shelter, senior center, church program or more. Those few hours a week can reveal much and be precious.

Photo of teens playing soccer with the Marines, linguists and Afghan police, courtesy of NATO,, Cpl James Clark of the US Marines and Wikimedia Commons. 


Friday, April 3

Happiness

Practiced in making choices, readers may be more content than non-readers, as suggested by David Hume in 1742:

The good or ill accidents of life are very little at our disposal; but we are pretty much masters what books we shall read, what diversions we shall partake of, and what company we shall keep. Philosophers have endeavoured to render happiness entirely independent of every thing external. That degree of perfection is impossible to be attained: But every wise man will endeavour to place his happiness on such objects chiefly as depend upon himself: and that is not to be attained so much by any other means as by this delicacy of sentiment. When a man is possessed of that talent, he is more happy by what pleases his taste, than by what gratifies his appetites, and receives more enjoyment from a poem or a piece of reasoning than the most expensive luxury can afford.

Our choices in what we read and with whom we converse influence our level of happiness to some measure. Circumstances and attempts by others to restrict such choices and literary capabilities constrain happiness, too. That does not mean all poems or books or scientific rationales provide such enjoyment, but no one should limit a reader's search. In a globalized world, the challenge is finding balance between selectivity and openness to new ideas.

Readers should remember, too, that a work's value in this area may not be immediately apparent.

David Hume was a Scottish philosopher and historian.  Photo of sculpture of David Hume in Edinburgh, courtesy of David M. Jensen, Storkk and Wikimedia Commons. 

Tuesday, March 31

Writing as design

Many mystery authors - this one included - would argue that writing stories, true or imagined, short or long, improves with age. It's not just the practice over time. As multitasking declines, focusing skills may improve. The skill promotes greater reflection by relying on memory and experience while also preserving memory and experience.

Not to mention that stories distract us from our problems ...

Research suggests that areas of the brain can improve with age. And advanced abilities can correlate with innovation and creativity. The Institute of Design at Stanford outlines the human-centered design process of empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test - all essential for the process of writing.

Indeed, drafting stories is a form of design.

Consider the first page of the d.school's Bootcamp Bootleg - and the many connections to drafting a mystery plot: show don't tell, focus on human values, craft clarity, embrace experimentation, be mindful of process, bias toward action, radical collaboration.

The guide advises that experiences are assets but only at the right time. For fresh work, assume the beginner's mindset: "Your assumptions may be misconceptions and stereotypes, and can restrict the amount of real empathy you can build."

How to assume this mindset? Don't judge. Question everything. Be curious, Find patterns. And Listen.

The guide offers additional advice on point of view, critical reading, imposition of constraints, character profiling, and determination of who is extreme: "Look to extreme users for inspiration and to spur wild ideas."

I began writing mysteries thirty years ago. Some plots emerge quickly and others are slow to form, but I am confident that the ones drafted today are better than the earlier ones. Some would suggest this comes with practice, but I do believe greater empathy, intuition, experiences, collaboration and appreciation of diversity have played their role.

In Allure of Deceit, an antagonist from Fear of Beauty designs a new life through writing and negotiations with foreign charities. Request a review copy.

Image of young woman with stylus for writing on wax tablet, Roman fresco, Sappho, circa the year 50, courtesy of  Wikkimedia Commons.


Indiana

Businesses want to sell their products. They do not want their employees assessing customers' morality on the spot.

They also do not want customers or government assessing the morality of their employees engaged in legal activities that may offend some religions.

CEOs of major companies headquartered in Indiana - including Eli Lilly and Company, Cummins Inc, Roche Diagnostics and Dow AgroSciences - are urging Governor Mike Pence to adjust the Religious Freedom Restoration Act:

"A who's who of top Indiana business executives called on Gov Mike Pence and legislative leaders to reform the newly passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act so it can't be sued to 'justify discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity,'" reports the Indianapolis Star.

The controversial bill in Indiana highlights the challenge for religions. Religious leaders each assume their form of practice is right and that the practice of others is wrong. Politicians and businesses cannot get involved in this battle.

If anything, the act's supporters may have instigated new protections against discrimination on sexual orientation.

11 am press conference with Gov Pence: He insists the law does not give license to discriminate and the law does not allow businesses to deny services. However, at one point Pence slipped and added "that are appropriate" after using the word "services."

He describes religious freedom as the nation's priority and suggests the law has a perception problem based on "smear" coverage, "mischaracterization" and "misunderstandings" and "reckless reporting." Pence seems to overlook that the First Amendment gives equal protection to freedom of the press.

Disturbing for women, he keeps referring to the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court that allows an employer to refuse insurance coverage for services that may go against religious beliefs.

He promises a fix to a "perception problem" this week, and if it's not a good one, expect clogged courts.

Religious shaming invites a backlash.

Freedom to be mean?

Religion is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as "The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods" and "A pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance."

Throughout history, some take this pursuit to extremes. In the United States, the effort to protect religious beliefs that go against social norms can get complicated. Special protections can trample other other rights and courtesies.

Indiana has enacted a law on "Religious Freedom Restoration."

The vague law can deliver confusion in a nation with a wide range of beliefs. The law allows businesses and corporations to reject customers based on religious beliefs. So, a pharmacist could refuse to provide a prescription for legal birth control pills. A baker can refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple planning their wedding. A doctor could refuse to deliver the infant of an unmarried mother. A real estate agent may refuse to a sell a home to an unmarried couple. A day care facility could refuse to accept children whose parents may not share beliefs simply because teachers to not want the burden of explaining diverse beliefs and practices.

Such laws seem drafted to allow citizens to rely on religious beliefs to be self-righteous, petty, mean or spiteful.

Burdens are in the eye of the beholder. Stephanie Wang writes for IndyStar:

"The argument over what [Governor Mike] Pence has thus signed becomes not only intellectual, but visceral, vitriolic, ugly. Both sides dig in, because each thinks the other is flatly wrong - in their hearts, and on the facts. And the debate rages on, sometimes spiraling to a place so far away from the law itself. All of which raises a larger question. Which really matters most: What the religious freedom law will actually legally enable; what people think it means; or what the intent is behind the law?"

As such, these laws are dangerous for religious beliefs in general. Citizens who become the targets of such acts or hear of friends who were rejected by a business will scrutinize the individual players and religions for meanness, hypocrisies and inconsistencies.

One religion's bad behavior tarnishes the reputation of religion in general as observers recognize the rules of God are interpreted by man.  In the Middle East and the United States, religion in the hands of modern man is becoming less a comfort and more a source of strife.

Places of worship and villages that exclude rather than welcome are destined to become lonely places.

The Indiana law reads:

"a government entity may not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability" though a government may "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if the government entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling government interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest." 

Those who feel their exercise of religion has been substantially burdened "may assert the violation... as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other government entity is a party to the proceeding."

The text of the Indiana law describes "exercise of religion" which "includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief."

In the United States, citizens have freedom to worship as they please. Amendment I of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Article IV of the US Constitution emphasizes that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Photo of abandoned church in Dickens, Nebraska, courtesy of Ammodramus and Wikimedia Commons


And do note, this post is not to suggest that the small town in Nebraska or the abandoned church is biased or connected to the Indiana law in any way. The town's economy changed with the Dust Bowl, changing transportation routes, and a merger with a nearby community. Remember, there are hauntingly beautiful structures all over this nation and the world, and the reasons are many.