Friday, December 30

Under a spell

Brunhilde Pomsel, now 105, recalls her position as one of five secretaries for Joseph Goebbels during 30 hours of conversation that serve as as the basis for the film A German Life. Goebbels was the minister of propaganda for Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, and Pomsel worked for him during the last three years.  Connolly interviewed Pomsel for The Guardian.   


Pomsel insists that she did not know about the extent of the Holocaust or her employer's own role in the genocide until after April 30, 1945 when Hitler along with Goebbels and others killed themselves. She served five years in prison for her wartime role. 

Connolly describes Pomsel as unrepentant: "As she holds court, gesticulating wildly, with a broad grin on her face, it seems as if she even takes something restorative from her insistence that she simply acted the same way as most other Germans. 'Those people nowadays who say they would have stood up against the Nazis – I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have.' After the rise of the Nazi party, 'the whole country was as if under a kind of a spell, she insists. 'I could open myself up to the accusations that I wasn’t interested in politics but the truth is, the idealism of youth might easily have led to you having your neck broken.'"

Of course, many in Germany and occupied countries sacrificed their lives by resisting the Nazis.

Pomsel's dismissal of modern critics of the Nazis is juxtaposed with a memory of being handed a case file on Sophie Scholl, a student activist with the White Rose resistance movement. Pomsel recalls being ordered to lock the file away without reading it, and she describes being "quite pleased with myself... that my keenness to honour that trust was stronger than curiosity to open that file."

Scholl, enrolled in the University of Munich in biology and philosophy, was a liberal thinker who like other members of her family questioned Nazi policies. Her brother had been arrested in 1937. A few years later Scholl joined her brother and a small group of students to distribute leaflets warning that Hitler and the Nazis were leading Germany into an "abyss" of immorality and war.

Later, Scholl was reported to have said: "Somebody, after all, had to make a start." She and other members of the White Rose resistance group were arrested in February 1943. They were convicted on February 22 and beheaded that same day.


The profile of Pomsel offers a glimpse into the varying power of resistance, duty, trust, discipline, and curiosity.  Germany was divided before 1933, and the Nazi Party came into power with less than a majority. The Nazis were intent on masking their motivations and many of their activities while destroying resistance by any means necessary.


Those who long to control others try to squash activism, warnings or investigations that might present an opposing view. They cannot endure simple questions let alone democratic procedures. They deny and resist the full range of observations and evidence, excluding any that fail to support their views. Curiosity is a trigger to caring about other humans and the world and a basis of explorations in science and art. "The important thing is not to stop questioning," said Albert Einstein, as quoted in Life Magazine in 1955. "Curiosity has its own reason for existing."

Stay vigilantly curious about what others try to hide or deny.

Photos, all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: "Nazi Hierarchy" of Adolf Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Hess; an unrelated typing class in the 1930s; and a bust of Sophie Scholl by sculptor Wolfgang Eckert by RyanHulin. 

Thursday, November 24

Thankful

Thanksgiving is a time for pausing and giving thanks for our many blessings. It's also a time entertaining visitors and calling family and friends, and so it's natural for comparisons to be made.

Social relativity comes into play. "That is, only the relative wealth of a person is important, the absolute level does not really matter, as soon as everyone is above the level of having their immediate survival needs fulfilled," writes Tor Nørretranders for edge.org.  "There is now strong and consistent evidence (from fields such as microeconomics, experimental economics, psychology, sociolology and primatology) that it doesn't really matter how much you earn, as long as you earn more than your wife's sister's husband."

So consider the graph. US citizens should be quite pleased with their relative wealth in comparisons with other countries. The US share of global personal wealth is 42 percent, up a percentage point from the previous year, according to the Allianz Global Wealth Report 2016, and the per-capita share is hefty, too.

The media often described US voters as yearning for change from the 2016 presidential election. "Trump's victory is widely attributed to the public's thirst for something new, which he represented and Hillary Clinton didn't. It would be more accurate to say the outcome stemmed from too much change - which has discombobulated conservatives, as well as liberals," notes Steve Chapman for Reason. He goes on to explain that is why the Trump campaign with the slogan "Make America Great Again" resonated with so many voters.

What rankles, though all voters may not realize, is the distribution of the US share of 42 percent wealth - which totalled $67 trillion in 2013. CNN covered the Congressonal Budget Office report on wealth and inequality: "The top 10% of families - those who had at least $942,000 - held 76% of total wealth. The average amount of wealth in this group was $4 million. Everyone else in the top 50% of the country accounted for 23% of total wealth, with an average of $316,000 per family. That leaves just 1% of the total pie for the entire bottom half of the population."

The nation selected billionaire Donald Trump to solve the conundrum. And remember, relativity can take multiple paths - the country's share can decline with either increased or decreased inequality or the country's share of wealth rises with either increased or decreased inequality.

And I must conclude by confiding that writing mystery novels about daily life in a small village in Afghanistan that lacks most of the modern conveniences we take for granted in the United States has made me feel very wealthy and thankful.  Thank you to all my readers.




     

Tuesday, November 1

Heat

The synonyms for heat are many - fiery, sultry, sweltering, torrid, burn, scorch, stifling, steaming - and the same words often refer to anger and extreme behaviors.  

Sunshine Noir, a collection of 17 short stories, examines a range of settings - and anger and evil lurk in each, whether they are lush or barren - the Sonoran Desert, a farm somewhere in Syria taken over by extremists, a village of shanties with corrugated roofs in Thailand, back alley secrets in Istanbul, a resort town in Cote d'Ivoire, a village in Botswana, a classroom in the French West Indies, an old port city in East Africa, tough streets in the Dominican Republic and more.

The collection is edited by Annamaria Alfieri and Michael Stanley. There is filth, dust, slavery,  insects, rotting food and putrid smells as well as control, failure and twisted logic and motivations. 

These stories embrace all the characteristics of film noir as described by the late Roger Ebert in 1995 - though the critic does not limit noir by specifying geographic settings or temperatures.

So hot places are as suitable as cold ones, and just as dark. The stories are bleak and dark in every sense of the French word noir, and they offer no hopes of happy endings. The locations - filthy tents, shabby rooms, narrow streets - are mean, closed and dark, too.

Characters are jaded, the men ambitious or clueless, and the women just as tough, and all come from sordid and unhappy backgrounds that have left them broken and bitter. The dialogue is terse, whether cryptic or pointed. They are quick to lash out and blame others, but inside, most realize they have no one else to blame but thmselves as tthey lie, cheat, punish and kill without compunction. No one can be trusted and , and everyone senses death - their own or another's - is waiting just around the bend.

Ebert mentions cigarette smoking, and yes, there is some of that, but alchohol and drug abuse along with other bad habits work just as well, too.

Strangers do not connect, and when they do, the relationships are flawed and misunderstood based on past misadventures. And noir might be dark and ugly, but it's so satisfying to write.  

Authors include Leye Adenle, Annamaria Alfieri, Colin Cotterill, Susan Froetschel, Jason Goodwin, Paul Hardisty, Greg Herren, Tamar Myers, Barbara Nadel, Richie Narvaez, Kwei Quartey, Jeffrey Siger, Michael Stanley, Nick Sweet, Timothy Willaims, Robert Wilson and Ovidia Yu.

Tuesday, October 4

Walking writers

I can't imagine writing without a daily walk outdoors, and Linda Wasmer Andrews wrote a beautiful article for Psychology Today about how walking stirs creativity - "To Become a Better Writer, Be a Frequent Walker."  

She graciously listed me among the many famous writers who walk:

"Susan Froetschel, author of the critically acclaimed novel Fear of Beauty, counts herself among the current generation of perambulating writers. 'As I walk along familiar streets in my neighborhood, I think about my writing and observe my surroundings, gathering descriptions of trees and sky and weather,' Froetschel says. The mental impressions she collects may eventually find their way into descriptive passages in her books."

The plots in each my five books includes long walks or hikes, often stressful and a device for making plans, observing foes, or escaping difficult situations. But like me, my characters do their best thinking while walking.

In Allure of Deceit: "Once away from the village, Saddiq proceeded carefully, studying the ground and avoiding the most traveled paths. He deliberate took a meandering route, circling back several times. Empty-handed, he used his hands to reach for trees and tried to pounce on tufts of grass or roots spreading from tree trunks to avoid leaving a trail shold the snow abruptly end .... They planned to walk until the sun came up, and the two did not talk so taht they would other passersby well in advance...."

In Fear of Beauty: "Only because the boy was leaving the next day, I accompanied for him the climb.... Without glancing at the mountain's biggest secret, my hidden garden, I followed Ali, trudging uphill. My shoes were too large, the soles brittle with age, but two pairs of thick knitted socks also protected my feet. Rather than use a path that wiggled around the mounatin, we headed straight uphill through luxurious wavers of grass in gray, gold, lavender, and green. the long strands pulled against my tomban, and rather than push through, I stepped high, toes pointed, to move more quickly.... I glanced up to see Ali happily waving for me to hurry. That memory of his fearless joy is always with me."

For me, the walking can be done before the writing or after - and even both. Wasmer Andrews also describes research that offers evidence that walking contributes to creative thinking.

Photograph of a woman walking in Afghanistan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

  


Friday, September 30

Presidential

The president is expected to serve all US citizens, and it's disturbing that a candidate could single out individuals for a few humiliating insults. Namely, Donald Trump's bizarre obsession with comedian Rosie O'Donnell and former Miss Universe Alicia Machado during the first presidential debate. 

Trump hurried to squeeze in a comment as the moderator posed the debate's final question: "You know, Hillary is hitting me with tremendous commercials. Some of it's said in entertainment. Some of it's said -- somebody who's been very vicious to me, Rosie O'Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her." 

Trump is at a disadvantage for such discussions. On one hand, his disagreements with the two women have nothing to do with policy and everything to do with vindictiveness. On the other hand, repeated attempts to convince others while standing on a stage before a global audience that the two women deserve scorn and ridicule is a disturbing display of sexism, pettiness, bullying, debate ineptitude, a lack of serious priorities and more.

He persists on the wrong issues, and regardless of what was said or done in the past, individuals do not deserve the scorn of presidential candidates. No one requires thicker skin than the president of the United States.  

Perhaps Stephen Colbert said it best when he noted that Trump had managed to alienate yet another key US demographic, the obese. About 35 percent of American are obese, reports the National Institutes of Health. And demographics overlap. Criticizing one group can siphon off supporters from another group regardless of ethnicity, gender, age and more. Consider that three out of four adult men of voting age are overweight as compared with two out of three women.

More than one pundit has noticed that Trump often lashes out difficulties he has shared, though he may not recognize these in obesity, adultery, or lack of workable plans or stamina during a debate.

The best leader is a good role model. Leadership embraces sacrifice, a sense of calm and resolve with a willingness to listen. Good leadership is about a vision for potential that encompasses dignity, humility and consideration for others. Such leaders promote journalism, education, science, good citizenship and democracy over conflict and entertainment.

Consider the words of George Washington, "There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness."And then Abraham Lincoln: "Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in." And also from Lincoln, "I am in a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."

The country must strive to organize around a common sense of facts. Polarization, promoting a sense of otherness and relying on a crutch of ideological alignment, threatens the country's greatness. There is wisdom in the simple golden rule and the sentiment of "There by the grace of God go I..."

Fear of Beauty is the story of a fictional and remote village in Afghanistan,where a woman defies her family and a small group of extremist bullies by secretly learning how to read. 

Wednesday, September 21

Brazen

Allure of Deceit is about charity going awry, serving personal agendas and warping incentives. Of course, charities are a tool and so much of their purpose and worth depend on the creator's vision and managers' skills.

The leading candidates in this year's presidential race each have ties to major charities bearing their names. We have commented about the Clinton Foundation, and the Washington Post now investigates the Donald J. Trump Foundation: "Donald Trump spent more than a quarter-million dollars from his charitable foundation to settle lawsuits that involved the billionaire’s for-profit businesses, according to interviews and a review of legal documents," reports David A. Fahrenthold. "Those cases, which together used $258,000 from Trump’s charity, were among four newly documented expenditures in which Trump may have violated laws against 'self-dealing' - which prohibit nonprofit leaders from using charity money to benefit themselves or their businesses."

Essentially, the article claims that donors receive tax deductions on what they give to the foundation and the foundation turns around and uses those funds to settle various business expenses.The funds were also used to purchase portraits of the foundation's namesake. "More broadly, these cases­ also provide new evidence that Trump ran his charity in a way that may have violated U.S. tax law and gone against the moral conventions of philanthropy," Farenthold concludes.

Many charities serve worthy purposes with dedicated staff and scrupulous research into problems and accounting of expenses. The wisest, most caring charities should support an end to tax deductions for charitable contributions because the charlatans are threatening all giving and charitable programs. Ordinary donors are hit with an unending stream of requests by mail and phone for contributions, and it's easy to say no. 

With increasing numbers of charities emerging to take advantage of tax write-offs, hundreds of thousands created in the last decade alone, too many tackle problems in flighty and inefficient ways.  Or, they don't tackle problems at all: "for every dollar donated and deducted by wealthy taxpayers paying taxes at a 35 percent marginal tax rate, the US loses 35 cents of potential income tax revenue," even as "the government struggles to provide essential health and education services,"  I wrote in 2011.

The essay contributed to the ideas about charity in Allure of Deceit. A murder victim in Allure of Deceit is a wealthy woman whose research focused on cross-country comparisons of charitable giving versus government spending and efficiency. She did not like how the notion of charitable giving could reinforce inequality: "The origin of the word forgiving was giving and traced how charitable practices over the years implied that recipients were wrongdoers who were weak and deserved no control." The victim's mother-in-law disregards such principles, starting a foundation and using its resources to investigate the reasons behind the murder.

"An open public process, prioritizing projects based on needs, would provide more efficient funding than relying on the whims of a few. Individuals passionate for a particular cause or innovation (or those thrilled to see their family names on a museum, clinic, or university hall) would still give – and should," the 2011 essay concluded.

Some basic services like education and health care are too vital for personal agendas and the scattershot approach. Tax deductions for charitable contributions can't end too soon.

Copy of the painting Charity Relieving Distress by Thomas Gainsborough, 1727 to 1788, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Thursday, September 1

Progress

Many appreciated Fear of Beauty, published in January 2013, because of the novel's hopeful message about characters in the midst of  a war against religious fanatics who imposed senseless rules and controls, often targeting women with prohibitions on employment, education and family planning.

But even in the darkest moments, the human spirit can persevere. Women use the available setting and tools at hand to satisfy the natural human yearning to learn and grow and improve.

So it's gratifying to read an article about women organizing small village farm unions in Afghanistan and diversifying crops, a development foreshadowed by Sofi's furtive work in Fear of Beauty. 

"The unions, in updating age-old agricultural traditions, have helped ensure a more reliable and diverse food supply in an often famine-struck region. In the process, the women who run the groups are finding new status and empowerment," explains Mujib Mashal for the New York Times, who describes farms adding cauliflower, tomatoes, beans, all kinds of vegetables in addition to wheat and potatoes. Such diversification boosts both economies and nutrition.  "The unions have put the women of Bamian on the front line of a critical struggle: the effort to shape a sustainable Afghan economy, away from dependence on foreign aid."
 
Foreign aid and the dangers of hidden agendas and over-dependence are also explored in Allure of Deceit.  

The article's descriptions of Afghanistan are reminiscent of those in both novels - from the narrow and winding roads against treacherous mountainsides as well as the descriptions of support and lessons on new techniques from the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture, so similar to the novel's stories about the Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

Do check out the article - the story is inspiring, and the photos will bring a rush of memories about fictional Laashekoh.  

Photo of Afghan village, courtesy of US Air Force, Master Sgt. Michael O'Connor,  and Wikimedia Commons.








Friday, August 26

Business

Health care is not a normal business. The demand side - an expectation for quality of life or survival - is just too skewed and at such a disadvantage to the supply side.

The price hike in EpiPens, used by many to control severe allergic reactions, exposes the many problems of running health care like a business. Buyouts in the pharmaceutical industry and fierce competition allow companies to hike prices and gouge desperate customers. Heather Bresch, CEO of Mylan, the company that makes the device, complains that she is frustrated and that "Our health care system is in crisis."

The system is in crisis due to greed and selfishness of a few - those who seek profit from selling life-saving health care, medicines and treatments at any cost.

Charity is not the answer.  "On Thursday the pharmaceutical company announced it would give a $300 coupon to lower- and middle-income customers who have to pay for the device out of pocket because they lack health coverage or have a high-deductible insurance plan (previously, it offered a $100 discount card)," reports Jordan Weissmann for Slate. "Giving patients a 50 percent break after increasing prices 500 percent is not exactly a sweeping act of charity, even if it does help some families erase their entire co-pays."

Charity does not necessarily provide comprehensive coverage. Donors may be generous and kind, but observers can never be certain because other motivations may be involved including tax write-offs, careers, reputations, celebrity status and more.

Prices vary around the world. US customers pay more than $600 for an EpiPen package. "Canadians pay around $120 (Canadian) for a single auto-injector, with the price varying somewhat, depending on an individual pharmacy’s dispensing fee," reports the Globe and Mail. The pack was less than $100 a decade ago.  

Corporations are being put on notice. US consumers are becoming less docile and conducting more price comparisons. 

"I'm running a business" is the hardhearted claim from Mylan's CEO on CNBC. No one should be outraged. She merely spoke the truth about the status of health care in the United States. She stands as exhibit A that some people work in the health care field, or rather industry, for the wrong reasons.

Allure of Deceit is about a large charity and the motivations for providing health care in the developing world.

Photo courtesy of Mylan. 

Friday, July 29

Eulogy for my father

St. Philip's student, Crafton
Joseph Harry was born in Crafton in 1928, just before the Great Depression hit. He is one of the smartest and most competitive people I have ever met. No one has taught me more about the preciousness of friends, family and home. For my father, there was no place like home

Over the years he shared so many memories of growing up on Fountain Avenue. He was the second of five children. He may have been born amidst hard times, but my grandparents did not complain and their children did not realize. He described a happy home, good times and a street where he never failed to find a pals and a pickup game. 

Like so many high school students, he had doubts about his capabilities and place in the world. He graduated high school in 1946 and immediately joined the US Navy, hoping to travel the world, and he often described his disappointment at being relegated to driving trucks endlessly up and down the East Coast during the decommissioning process of World War II.

Senior photo, 1946
He returned home, decided his best subject was math and began studying accounting at the Robert Morris College which had set up temporary classrooms in the William Penn Hotel for returning GIs. While there, a judge teaching his business law class praised his ability for logic and sorting through complex legal matters – giving my dad well-deserved self-confidence. Perhaps that’s a reason we all relished a good argument.  He tested us and wanted us to be our best.

He graduated in 1951 and went to work at Dravo Corporation on Neville Island where he met my beautiful and kind mother Jeanne Marie who worked in the mainframe computer room, helping engineers prepare to run their data with punch cards.

My earliest memories of my father are in our Ingram bungalow. The end of the workday when the front door opened and he entered, a towering and beaming presence in suit and Fedora, carrying his briefcase – and my brother Mark and I rushed to give him a boisterous welcome because we knew that was when the fun began. But he was strict and set limits, too, because he wanted us to do well at school. Nightly, after supper, we sat at the dining table and did homework before listening to stories read aloud. 

Graduate of Robert Morris College, 1951
Soon, a little sister joined us to welcome him home. He expected us to protect and guide her and I was in biggest trouble when something happened to her under my watch … the most memorable was a hot summer day and a long walk. I decided to take a shortcut heading home along a steep slope where she lost control and tumbled down the hill. You can imagine my terror at bringing home his favorite toddler covered in scratches and bruises.

His biggest goal was keeping us safe, financially, mentally and physically, of that there was no doubt.  I’ll never forget the first time our family watched the Wizard of Oz, my absolute terror as the witch came on screen, taunting Dorothy and setting the scarecrow on fire. So my father whisked me up, wrapped my coat over pajamas and carried me out into the snowy night where we trudged up the yellow brick road of Admiral Dewey Avenue to climb Kreston Street, so steep for me back then. Once on top, he tucked his arms around me for an exhilarating and magical sled ride. Just one. And by the time we returned home, the witch was gone and so was fear.

My dad was so spontaneous and in recent years he appreciated our spontaneity, joining us to play basketball in the neighborhood park, heading downtown to see the big Pittsburgh duck at the Point, or heading to Oakland and Conflict Kitchen to try the cuisine of Afghanistan.   

Time and time again, our father taught us to stand up for ourselves – and he did a good job because eventually we used these tools on him, as independent children are wont to do. Of course, we all had rocky periods with him.

But he was okay with that and there was also tremendous honesty, integrity, forgiveness and love.

As children, we never knew that tragedy hit when he lost an infant son in 1959. But we understood tragedy when he lost his wife, Jeanne, in 1964. My father devoted all his free time to care for us over the next five years, and he was so grateful to his parents and his sister for welcoming into their home.
The year after my mother die, he worked so hard to help with our homework, and I’ll never forget my first book report the first October that followed. A good cover was part of the grade and he took me down to the basement and sawed away at plywood and added hinges and we glued a piece of driftwood on that and a little plastic dog. It was early helicopter parenting.

In November 1969, he married beautiful Pat, the only woman I have met whose energy matched his own. These two fearless people who had each lost a spouse took the giant step of combining their families, seven children in all.  There was so much planning, joy and anticipation as they built a new home together. That year was the first season for the Brady Bunch, a time of huge transition in our country’s history.

We were living a story, the American dream, and both our parents prepared us well for the many transitions to follow. Seven children heading off for higher education despite recessions and job changes. My dad was happy and innovative during his last job at the old Kane Hospital until retirement, all the while enjoying his hobby of collecting old clocks and watches.
Night out

Over the years we heard him describe the many accomplishments of his seven children and ten grandchildren with glee and pride, never directly to any of us. At one time Mark couldn’t help but wonder if our dad only boasted about the other six children. But then one night Mark joined my father’s pals at the Martinique Lounge, where in later years my father stopped each night after work. The crew there had heard all our stories, many times over, and Mark listened and knew how much my Dad had loved him.  

My dad was strong in so many ways. And his strength endured to meet his first great grandchild, dear little Penelope Jay, on July 19 of this year.

We realized how rich our lives were in 2009 when we gathered at Terri’s home in North Carolina to celebrate their 40th anniversary and how far we had all come since the late 1960s. 

Admiration for my father has deepened since 2012 when he went to the hospital with severe pain and waited weeks before the doctors informed him that he had colon cancer and needed an operation. He was courageous through the illness and rehabilitation, never complaining or expressing bitterness. All he said was that he looked forward to returning to his home, getting back to Pat’s cooking and sitting in his favorite spot in the back yard to watch deer, rabbits, and a squirrel he had trained with peanuts.

My father had the chance to celebrate Father’s Day twice this year, once with Vince and his family. Then he was sent to the hospital and came home to celebrate again with a dinner that included my husband, me and his sister Betty.

On Father’s Day he was tired, but content and nostalgic, grateful for Pat’s love and care and a chance to share favorite memories with a cherished sister.

Attending Yale College graduation party for grandson
A few days later, he entered the hospital once again and he realized that he would not return home again. Again, he did not complain. Instead, he told stories of home and it became clear that he was reliving so many memories and relishing old friendships and childhood antics once again – one of the last memories he described to me was of friends in Crafton, daring one another to take a shortcut through a railroad tunnel in the neighborhood, racing along the tracks through the darkness to beat a shrieking whistle and make it to the other side before the train came roaring through.

And he marveled how much time had passed. More than once while in the hospital, he took my hand, impressing me with me how complex life is – his words – and how short and how happy and thankful he was to return home from all his adventures.

Dad I’m so proud of you. We love you and you will always be in our hearts. 

Friday, July 1

Fear

Election campaigns, whether in the United Kingdom with the decision to leave the European Union or the United States and the fight over the presidency, are focused on how to change. Those on each side cannot help but holding fears should the "change" not go their way.

Some of the differences are over immigration - how much is needed to keep economies running smoothly. Immigrants fear retribution and separation from families. The unemployed and under-employed fear competition over jobs, and businesses fear labor shortages. Tight communities fear cultural change.


 The voters express their fears in extreme and negative ways. One older woman asked Donald Trump in New Hampshire why more retirees and military retirees could not get jobs with the TSA. "Get rid of all these hibi-habis they wear at TSA."

Such anger comes from a deep insecurity - the fear that others are judging their politics, education background, religious beliefs, worth and society. Few, especially the young, who have experienced or studied previous decades like the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s do not want to return to an era of gender and racial inequality. They do not want the "freedom" to stand in a group and toss off insults about others based on religion, race, gender and more.

Most are comfortable with diversity. But others are deeply troubled when the young or newcomers in a society present a different point of view on politics, entertainment, or religion. Displaying or expressing a difference may suggest traditional ways are wrong.

And thus this poor woman's resentment for the hijab - another religion requires the head covering as a symbol of modesty and this dictate, beyond her control or realm of experience, becomes a source of shame. Her response is to ban such people from her life and her community. As I wrote in Fear of Beauty,

    More opinions came from having more to compare, and too often we fear our preferences... Our minds 
    constantly assess, determining which ways work better and which do not.... Those who prefer continuity 
    avoid comparisons and regard any hint of choice as criticism. New interpretations from others might 
    twist their own opinions in unknown ways....

   Comparisons can establish ideals or form the basis of sins like jealousy, greed, pride, or sloth. 

Intolerance and isolationist tendencies, the inability to compare and accept, are forms of self-torture.

Photo of five Afghan lieutenants working with the US Armed Forces, courtesy of Mass Communications Specialist First Class Elizabeth Burkey and Wikimedia Commons 
 

Thursday, March 24

Diplomacy

The purpose of of protocol is to connect nations and cultures. Yet too often, criticisms about protocol are slung about to impose unnecessary controls, emphasizing social hierarchies and puffing a sense of self-importance among a few.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that that President Barack Obama should not have canceled his trip to Cuba and Argentina. “However, the advance person who let him do the tango, that person ought to be looking for work on somebody’s - in somebody’s campaign very, very far away," Haass said on the morning talk show Morning Joe. “Baseball games and tangos, that’s inconsistent with the seriousness of the day.”

Diplomatic protocol is about representing one's nation and making our relationships and interactions within the diplomatic and host country communities more predictable and more comfortable.

"Protocol is not an end in and of itself. Rather, it is a means by which people of all cultures can relate to each other," notes a US State Department document on Protocol for the Modern Diplomat. "It allows them the freedom to concentrate on their contributions to society, both personal and professional. Protocol is, in effect, the frame for the picture rather than the content of it."

Most importantly, the document urges, "Remember that as a guest, one is expected to respect the host's culture. Culture, of course, is unique to each country." The bold emphasis is mine, but not the italics.

Diplomatic protocol at its finest is not about control.

Granted, some casual ways of Americans may be considered rude. But the president was in Argentina as a guest. He was not in Belgium and he did not initiate the tone of the gathering or the dancing. To turn down the request might well have been considered stuffy and rude in Argentina.

And the citizens of Belgium and Europe would be wise to continue with normal routines and celebrations, including travel, shopping, sporting events, singing and dancing to let the Islamic State know they do not control us. We are certainly not going to let the Islamic State set the tone for on the "seriousness of the day."

Diplomacy is not centered around the United States or the outrageous and outlandish alarms and positions expressed daily in the presidential race. The vast majority of the world is delighted by Obama's charm, candor and easygoing ways, and the unending streams of criticism for this president are wearying.And America is best as lighthearted and free of controls.

Photo of another couple performing the tango, courtesy of Ariel Ambrosino and Wikimedia Commons.



 

Wednesday, March 2

Hero

Some readers often express surprise that my mystery novels, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, tackle the challenges of Afghanistan and the Middle East from the perspective of families living in a small and isolated village.

"The most powerful force in the universe is a mother protecting [her] children,"contends Marc Edwards, the environmental engineer from Virginia Tech University who identified systematic contamination of the Flint water supply and helped residents raise the alarm. He shows a photo of a mother bear fiercely protecting her cubs. "And even if you don't care about children's health, and I think you should and you should get out of the field, and if  you don't, you don't want to mess with this force because she will go out of her way to track you down and mess you up."

Edwards spoke at a public forum presented by WKAR on his role in the Flint water crisis. To save funds, the city under state emergency management shifted its water supply away from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014. By summer, residents were complaining. Six months later, in October, a General Motors plant discontinued using the city's water. By January 2015, state office buildings in Flint arranged for special water deliveries for their use.

Meanwhile, state officials kept assuring residents the water was safe. 

Lee Anne Walters is a Flint mother who noticed her children had rashes during summer of 2014 after they took paths or left the family's pool. That started a series of trips to the doctor and a pattern of worry. City tests found lead, but officials suggested the problem was with the home's plumbing. In February 2015, Walters contacted Miguel Del Toral of the US Environmental Protection Agency Midwest Water Division and Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer at Virginia Technical University. Blood tests showed her four children were exposed to lead. Edwards tested the water  and found lead levels - more than 13,000 parts per billion and more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. The city had switched water supplies and in failing to treat the water with an inexpensive anti-corrosion agent had virtually ruining the pipes, Del Toral informs the state, and expresses concern that the entire city could have the same problem.

Lead is a toxic metal, especially dangerous for children, that can cause many health problems - neurologic, hematologic, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and renal, reports the World Health Organization.  No level of exposure is deemed safe.


The mother, the EPA staffer and the professor assumed that state environmental officials would do their jobs and take immediate action. A city of almost 100,000 people was slowly being poisoned with lead and other contaminants. The complaints were many, yet state and local government officials resisted raising an alarm.

State environmental officials scoffed at residents who complained about brown water and repeatedly insisted the water was safe to drink. EPA regional administrator Susan Hedman reprimanded Del Toral in July 2015. In August, Edwards spent his own money to conduct wide-scale and independent tests of Flint water with the help of students. By September, he announced that the corrosion problem is community-wide with his tests showing that one out of six homes in Flint showed high levels of lead. In September pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha announced a spike in Flint children with elevated blood lead levels. Another month goes by, and in October, the city advised Flint residents to use only cold tapwater for drinking or cooking. State officials accuse Edwards and others of turning the issue into a "political football."

By mid-October 2015, Flint returned to the Lake Huron for its water supply. But pipes were ruined. The governor declared a state of emergency for the county in January 2016. More than 18 months had passed before the the public received a complete warning, and Edwards suggests that action would have taken much longer had the story not hit the newspapers. The contamination may have been caught relatively early because state officials were so callous and didn't even try to fake caring for Michigan residents.

Such unethical behavior is tolerated in the United States every day, Edwards warns, and he describes Walters, the Flint mom, as "ten times the scientist" over anyone at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Edwards is firm about the scientist's role: "Science is about seeking the truth and helping people, and if you're doing it for any other reason, you should look find another career." He urges students, "Do your job, be a human. Revolutionary."

Public goods like water, essential for survival, are taken for granted. "In the US, Clean Water Is No Guarantee," and as I noted in 2011, "During an economic recession, protecting water supplies takes a back seat to industries that promise jobs....Americans may soon regret favoring one commodity [oil] over the other [water]."

Thanks to the tireless work of Walters, Edwards and Del Toral - the EPA has since done a turnaround and issued a memo urging managers of public water supplies to implement the Lead and Copper Rule, adding agents to prevent corrosion of pipes, and inform communities about problems in a timely way. Even so, the country can expect other problems and contamination of water supplies. A culture of corruption has infiltrated American society, and no one is safe until such systems are fixed and ordinary people find the courage to do their jobs and speak out about problems, rather than looking the other way and waiting for someone else to take on the unpleasant task.

Too many political, academic and business leaders try to evade basic truths while protecting their own careers. An investigation is underway.

Update, March 4: The Guardian newspaper examines emails in Michigan and suggests all staff in the governor's inner circle knew of complaints about corrosion and contamination. Some staff members chose to ignore the complaints and other questioned the veracity. The complaints bounced back and forth among staff members with no action or urgency.

A good reminder for any employee. If there is a suspicion of wrongdoing or danger, especially for vulnerable people, do not limit reports of concern to one supervisor. The employee may get fired or reprimanded, like Del Toral, but that is better than later being regarded as callous, incompetent or criminally liable.

Tuesday, February 9

Stoic

Pundits suggest that the Clinton campaign is perplexed by millennials' support for Bernie Sanders. The reasons are not so perplexing for this observer whose fiction, especially Allure of Deceit, explores women's rights, demographics, the generational divide, worries of mothers for their sons, in addition to the warped incentives of charities that strive to boost select groups.

Sanders has captured a key millennial concern - inequality - and he deplores inequality of opportunity as much as inequality of income.

The young may expect Sanders to make worthy appointments and might wonder about nepotism in a Clinton administration, and not just the influence of big donations and speaking fees from Wall Street. There might be concerns, say, about a role for Chelsea Clinton versus Elizabeth Warren in a Clinton administration, whereas the perception is that Sanders would not hesitate to appoint Warren to a cabinet position.

Along the same lines, Sanders seems as though he could work well with Hillary, but young voters can't be sure that the Hillary would be willing to work with Sanders.

The biggest problem may be Hillary's stoic attitude - that she has had to put up with much and she may expect young voters to be patient and do the same - and leaders who expect voters to fall in line with expert opinions.

Clinton's hold over the 2016 democratic nomination was described as inevitable. But too many democrats did not want to be denied the opportunity to listen and choose. Too many in leadership positions, on both the democrat and republican sides, assumed that they could select a winning candidate in advance and impose that on unsuspecting voters.

But voters have their own opinions. The young, the women, all voter can surprise.


Clinton's eager supporters have made a huge miscalculation by chiding young women's support for Sanders - by suggesting that Clinton is entitled and destined to become the first woman president of the United States. Scoldings by Gloria Steinem ("When you're young, you're thinking 'Where are the boys?' The boys are with Bernie") and Madeleine Albright (Young women have to support Hillary Clinton... and just remember, there's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other") were cringe-worthy moments that are particularly damaging for the Clinton campaign, as described by Robin Abearian for the Los Angeles Times.

Parents, politicians, teachers have lectured the young time and time again, warning of economic chaos and hell, metaphorical and otherwise, if certain paths are selected or traveled too quickly. Marriage equality is just one example. 

Many young people are weary of polarization between the parties, sexes, races, religions and more. Their world is a crowded place - they must navigate among 330 million Americans and 7.4 billion people in the world versus the 200 million in the United States and 3.6 billion of the world in 1969 when Hillary graduated from college. Yes, the world's population has doubled in a lifetime, and the country is more diverse.  The young want to and must get along. Most voters would prefer that candidates in both parties cooperate within the party and across-the-aisle, coalescing around a few reasonable positions to solve big pressing challenges and get some some work done for the country.

Photo of two campaign supporters assisting an elderly voter, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the State Library of New South Wales. 

I Write Like...

I Write Like is a free tool to analyze writing excerpts. Users insert a few paragraphs into a box, and the tool assesses the text based on  word choice and style to determine which famous author's work the excerpt most resembles.

So I immediately tested a few graphs from my most recent novel, Allure of Deceit, a scene of two frightened children running away from home. The tool suggested that the text was similar to that of J.K. Rowling. Then I tried a different section, one on a main character reflecting on his age, and was advised the text resembled that of author Neil Gaiman.And then another section from the final climax - that was identified as similar to work by science fiction writer Harry Harrison. I tried yet another section, early in the book, a section describing a mother's curiosity about a son's death, and that was assigned Jane Austen.

The results were surprising and may suggest that my writing is inconsistent over the course of several hundred pages. But then again, perhaps not. I turned to an excerpt of Harry Potter & and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling and inserted her text - and lo and behold, that was assigned a badge from Kurt Vonnegut. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss was reported to be similar to work by James Joyce.

I came late to this little game and was relieved to discover that many other writers had tried the software and posted similar results on social media. "Obviously, I Write Like isn't an exact science," wrote Jake Coyle for HuffPost Books in 2011. "But simply the idea of an algorithm that can reveal traces of influence in writing has proven wildly popular."

The software, developed by Dmitry Chestnykh of Coding Robots, went online in 2010 and is largely based on keywords. Chestnykh explained in an email that the assessment tool is limited to 52 authors. He provided the list, and all are notable.

The length of text inserted into the tool matters. A partial excerpt of the speech by Sarah Palin endorsing Donald Trump as presidential candidate was described as similar to writings David Foster Wallace. The full text of her speech was assigned the badge of Rudyard Kipling.

There are no rankings that suggest an excerpt is immature or needs improvement. The tool accepts the world's most amateur works, including schoolwork by a second grader or comments on Yahoo, and all are compared to famous works and assigned a badge from one of the 52 famous authors.

And that is probably wise. Any assessment of writing, including I Write Like, is subjective. What matters is that we try to write and connect with others though our work. In Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment, Maja Wilson describes being "convinced that there is something fundamentally sacred about teaching writing - about helping another person to express and shape their humanity through language."

Writing offers a window into the thoughts of others - and as such, writing and tools that aid revision and fine-tuning should be also encouraged. Fortunately, the I Write Like tool does not store or use inserted text for purposes other than the quick assessment. 

Thursday, January 7

Take and give

In using fiction to address social problems, an author does not want to be too extreme with imagined scenarios, easy to do in the thriller and suspense genres. Overly biased stories will turn off many readers.

While first thinking about charities in early 2011, arguing that the spending may not be in line with democracy, I felt very much alone. Politicians and citizens raved about big charities. I felt ungrateful, cynical, but still felt compelled to write a story about a good woman who is hurt, overseeing a foundation and manipulating billions of dollars for funding in the developing world.  A string of news stories since February of last year, when Allure of Deceit was released, suggest my critique of big philanthropy may not have gone far enough.

George Joseph interviews Linsey McGoey, author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, for the Progressive and writes:

"As institutions like the Gates Foundation take increasingly leading roles in policymaking and governance, McGoey argues, the line between traditional notions of charity and top-down consolidation of power becomes unclear; and with this largely unchecked influence, philanthro-capitalists, like Bill Gates, have pushed countries across the world to accept market based solutions for crises like education inequity and disease proliferation—despite evidence that these problems are often rooted in actions taken by those philanthro-capitalists themselves."

McGoey points out that giving can be shrouded in secrecy, that it can be strategic and designed to support goals of donors; wealth is often transferred among the rich, and taxpayers subsidize charitable endeavors by giving up tax revenues. The system reinforces inequality.

The interview concludes: "The amassment of wealth doesn’t naturally endow any individual with leadership ”rights.” But that is what’s happening: the assumption that wealth confers exceptional public duties and that we owe deference to individuals who part with their fortunes. That assumption has no merit—at least not in a democratic nation."

Philanthropy is a worthy tool, and becomes treacherous when lacking in transparency or applied in selective ways. In defense of some major charitable organizations, some programs tackle problems head-on and worldwide - like the Gates Foundation goals to eliminate polio or encourage libraries. Other programs are dangerously selective and often mask political agendas.


In a world with limited resources, people must decide if problems, especially "absolute poverty," are best solved by government or charitable giving. Do philanthropy and the associated lobbying weaken government and come with hidden agendas?

Philanthropy is a worthy tool, but not when it diminishes respect for government.  

Photo of a Nairobi slum, courtesy of Africa.org.