Hell, No, to Betsy DeVos (Said the Angry Mama Bear)


If one values sleep, it’s probably not a good idea to watch Senate confirmation hearings before going to bed. Certainly not ones like that which occurred Tuesday evening when Betsy DeVos, filthy obscenely rich nominee for secretary of education, told Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut (where Sandy Hook Elementary School happens to be located) that guns are a good idea in schools because, you know, bears.

It was laughable, the stuff of insta-memes, indistinguishable from The Onion fodder or an Andy Borowitz post. And part of me even wonders if there was some impetus from the power brokers-that-be, some nudge to say something kind of goofy that would prompt the Internet to lose its collective shit — all the better to distract from the real issues. Because that’s how this new regime operates.

Make no mistake: plenty more than bears are at stake here.

For me, the most egregious comment (and it is hard to choose just one) had to do with the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act, known as IDEA.  Clearly, Ms. DeVos didn’t have any idea what she was talking about when she told Senator Tim Kaine (a.k.a. The Man Who Should Be Vice President) that she would allow the states (or, in her high-falutin’ parlance, “locales”) to decide whether to implement the federal law mandating that children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education. Later, in an exchange with Senator Maggie Hassan, whose son has a disability, Ms. DeVos admitted she might have been “confused” about said law.

Confused, my ass. When it comes to this particular nominee, there’s no confusion. Through her prior actions and financial support of school choice, she represents a clear threat to the laws, standards, and policies that comprise public education in the United States of America. She puts us on a path to potentially dismantling the provisions that have guaranteed for four decades the same educational rights to every single child in this country.

Ever wonder what $200 million bucks can buy?  A hell of a trip back in time to when children with disabilities were forgotten and treated as less than by our government. We can’t afford to go back to those days. Our children deserve better than that. Now more than ever, they need us to be their advocates and their voice.

For weeks, my friends have been lighting up the phones–some every day–calling their elected representatives and others across the country. My Facebook feed has been full of daily actions, of phone numbers and sample scripts, of suggestions to put our representatives on speed dial.

And aside from banging out political social media and blog posts, I’ve stayed silent.  I’ve never, not once, called my elected officials despite being urged to do so. Mine were the usual bullshit reasons: I hate talking on the phone, my call won’t make a difference, blahdeblahdefuckingblah.

After watching Ms. DeVos’ utter ineptitude and lack of understanding, that changed.

By 7:15 a.m. this morning, I had left messages for my Senators, one of whom is Bob Casey, a member of the HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee faced with Ms. DeVos’ nomination. I didn’t have a script and I was less articulate than I would have liked. But you know what? I didn’t care.

I realized that by staying silent I am giving way too much power to the Betsy DeVos of the world. The people who think that their money and their privilege can buy them access and power and the ability to trample on the rights of those less fortunate. I know people like Betsy DeVos. I know Betsy DeVos doesn’t care about my child with autism or Maggie Hassan’s child with cerebral palsy or your child or any other child in this country who currently receives an education.  She doesn’t care about your daughter who was sexually assaulted on her college campus. She doesn’t care about making that college affordable. She doesn’t care about existing policies that help to protect kids from harassment and bullying and threats much more serious than one of Goldilocks’ three bears coming to life and walking into a classroom.

This angry mama bear is pissed as hell and speaking up for her cub and every other cub because it’s my responsibility as a parent and as a human being who cares about what’s right and what’s just to do so with every fiber of my being.  And while there are days when it is too much and too overwhelming and everything feels futile, that’s when I will try to speak up even louder.

Because the alternative is simply far too much to bear.

Two New Reviews: House of Silence, by Sarah Barthel and Nowhere Else I Want to Be, by Carol D. Marsh

Two new books to share with you, via my reviews in the 1/13/2017 issue of Shelf Awareness.

House of Silence by Sarah Barthel is “an engaging, fast-paced blend of historical fiction and suspense.” Before reading this, I didn’t know much about Mary Todd Lincoln’s stay at Bellevue Place, a sanitarium where her son Robert had her committed 10 years after President Lincoln’s assassination. This novel weaves Mary Todd Lincoln’s story with the fictional Isabelle Larkin, a socialite whose fiancé Gregory is a political hopeful and one of Chicago’s most eligible and attractive bachelors. When Isabelle catches Gregory committing a crime, she’s trapped … until being sent to Bellevue where she befriends — you guessed it, Mary Todd Lincoln. You can read more under the Fiction section in the Shelf Awareness issue.

Nowhere Else I Want to Be is Carol D. Marsh’s memoir of her 14 years as executive director of Miriam’s House, a community of women who are addicted to drugs and dying of AIDS. She lived on the premises with her husband Tim and together with their staff, provided the women with a home and cared for those forgotten by their families and society.  Along with the many heartbreaking stories of the women she came to know at Miriam’s House, Marsh shares her own story of growth in this role as she learned to confront her naiveté and false assumptions.

Although I didn’t work in a direct service capacity, a lot of this reminded me of my time working at a domestic violence shelter. More of my review in the Shelf Awareness issue, under the Social Science heading, as well as a review with Carol Marsh by my writing colleague Katie Noah Gibson, who blogs at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

 

 

Currently…Hibernation Sunday

Currently
It’s a day for staying indoors, given that it is all of 11 degrees outside as I write. Such is January in Pittsburgh. I skipped church because of the weather and a morning migraine that has, thankfully, subsided. We de-Christmased the house earlier, then I spent most of the day on the couch with a cup of rooibos tea with the Steelers-Miami game on as background (whooooo hoooo, Steelers!) while I caught up on some blog reading and perused Pinterest for some meal planning ideas. You know, the usual lazy Sunday.

The upcoming week will be busier than usual because I’m immersed in a big project at work. This will likely require a few later evenings, on top of several hours of work yesterday during a rare Saturday in the office to try and get ahead of the game.  I took today as a break from the work project which will wrap up this coming Friday the 13th … hopefully a luckier day than the date portends). The intensity is a short-term thing, but this has been in the works for a year, so it will be good to have some semblance of completion.

Reading …
I need to spend some time this evening with a new short story collection which I’m reviewing. (That deadline is Friday, too.) This one will be my first book of 2017, not to be confused with Sheila from Book Journey’s annual First Book of the Year project. I had all good intentions of participating in that but had to temporarily set aside my choice (The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes) to focus on the review book.

Watching…
I spent a good chunk of my two-week Christmas break binge-watching “This Is Us” and am completely hooked on this show. I don’t watch much TV to begin with and I certainly didn’t need a new obsession, but here it is.  I have two more episodes to watch, which I plan to do right after hitting publish on this. Perfect timing for the season premiere this Tuesday.

Blogging … 
I’m planning to participate in the Winter 2017 Mini-Bloggiesta, scheduled for Jan 14-15.  If you’re new to Bloggiesta, it is described as “a blogging marathon revolving around ticking off those items on your to-do list and improving your blog while in the good company of other awesome bloggers doing the same thing.”

The timing is great because I’ll have a four-day weekend, thanks to the MLK holiday and a vacation day that needs to be used this month. To-do’s for this Bloggiesta include updating my Book Review page (and revising some others) and writing some posts. If you missed it last week, I shared my selections for the Best Fiction books of 2016 (meaning, those I read in 2016, not necessarily ones published during the past year). Even though the window of time for 2016 wrap up posts has pretty much closed, I still want to finish my Best Nonfiction post. I read a lot of stellar nonfiction last year that I’d really like to share with all of you.

OK, I’m off to finish watching “This Is Us” with a case of Kleenex at the ready. Hope your Sunday is going well and that you have a great week.

The Emperor’s New Ethics

This post will likely cost me a few more Facebook friends and/or blog readers, but that’s what happens, I’ve learned, when one decides not to remain silent about the egregiousness that has quickly become business as usual in this new political regime of ours.

I speak of the top news story of the day, that of the House Republicans’ collective “uh, sorry, didn’t mean it, nothing to see here” reverse-course announcement earlier this afternoon regarding their original plan to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics.  This comes less than 24 hours after they announced their intent to get rid of it. After all, we certainly can’t have an Office of Congressional Ethics initiating investigations and speaking to the press, can we? Certainly not.

Appropriately so, people were angry enough about the possible disappearance of the Office of Congressional Ethics that they called their representatives en masse to demand action. Which — let me be perfectly clear here — was the right thing to do.  If there’s anything positive that this godforsaken election has produced, it’s this increased interaction with our elected officials. We should have our representatives on speed dial. We should know their names and they should know ours. And in this brave new world, when there will be countless opportunities for outrage, their phones will likely be ringing off the hook as more people than ever decide to give their friendly Congressperson or Senator a buzz.

This is good. This is what we need to be doing in these unprecedented times and we will be called to do so again and again.

Unfortunately, all the calls had nothing to do with the House Republicans changing their mind about keeping the Office of Congressional Ethics.

As much as we’d like to think otherwise, the people didn’t make this happen.

The country’s Tweeter-in-Chief did, with a two-part missive tweeted at 10:03 a.m.

“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it……..may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS”

For the record — and I’d imagine this will be one of the few times you’ll hear me say this — but I actually agree with the King.  I’m probably not alone; most of us probably read that and, to our amazement, found ourselves nodding and thinking that the guy makes a good point.

And that was exactly the intent.  It’s actually quite masterful, if you think about it.  By embarrassing the servants and letting them know that the King wasn’t happy, what other choice did they have? They created this monster; now they have no recourse other than to obey his every whim by kissing his ring every single day regardless of every destructive, nefarious, malicious, stupid, bigly-assed edict he declares from his throne of tweets. There’s no other choice. He owns them, they know it, and that’s what today was all about — with the added reality show of the King masquerading as a reasonable, rational ruler with a fully-functioning set of ethics and sense of priorities.

It wasn’t about the people suddenly having the power to change, within 24 hours, the minds of the powers-that-be. When have they ever acted so fast in response to the people’s wishes?

We didn’t make this happen.

The King did.

And because he has them in his corner and knows it, we’ll get to watch him do it again and again and again, for as long as he may reign.

 

Reflections on the New Year and My Best Books of 2016 (part 1)

Books Transform in Hourglass

Happy New Year, friends. The beginning of another journey around the sun, a time for reflecting on what has gone before and what the future holds. Given the state of the world, this particular year brings a heightened level of uncertainty. It probably goes without saying that I’m right there with you if you’re feeling a bit (or a lot) apprehensive and anxious about the days ahead and not wanting to embrace the usual spirit of hope and new beginnings that typically marks this day. 

I get that. I don’t tend to make resolutions anymore, preferring to embrace the practice of choosing one word (or three) as a touchstone for the year. (I’m currently vacillating between two words.) I also like the idea of using this time to release those regrets, disappointments, mistakes — and yes, unrealistic resolutions or goals — that we may have carried with us into the new year. Sunday’s service at our UU congregation was “Letting Go” where we did just that with a Burning Bowl ceremony, also known as Fire Communion. In this ritual, you write down on a piece of paper a word or a phrase that represents something you want to release and let go of for the new year. It was all very meaningful and cathartic, especially on New Year’s Day itself. I loved it.

I had much weightier concerns to let go of, but as far as book blogging goes I’m going to try and forego setting a goal for the number of books to read this year. I don’t even think I’m going to join the Goodreads reading challenge. I mean, I read 43 books in 2016 and somehow I feel like that was a lousy reading year because I didn’t meet my self-imposed, twice-revised goal. That’s not a healthy mindset when you consider that the typical American only reads four books a year. Given that, 43 books is an exceptional year and that’s how I choose to look at it. Maybe I’ll change my mind — who knows?

What I do know is that among those 43 were some excellent fiction and nonfiction. In this post, I share my picks for the Best Fiction of 2016, alphabetical by author’s last name. (I’ll do my selections for Best Nonfiction in a separate post, hopefully later this week.) I don’t limit my selections to works published in 2016, however in the case of my fiction selections all but one was released this past year.  I also don’t limit my annual list to a specified number of books (i.e., my top ten). If I loved all 43 books, I would be highlighting every one.

So, without further ado,  I recommend for your reading pleasure the five works of fiction (among them two novellas) that I consider to be the best that I read in 2016. Links take you to my full review, if I wrote one.

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
In this novella, the dysfunctional Riley family is en route to Washington D.C. where their teenage son Otis, a violinist, will be performing at the legendary Ford’s Theatre. The road trip is symbolic of each family member’s individual journey. The characters — especially Alex, a transgender teen — are brilliantly rendered and with its suspenseful plot, Jennifer Finney Boylan creates a dark-humored gothic mood reminiscent of the best of Flannery O’Connor. (SheBooks, 2014, 81 pages)

Whiskey, Etc. by Sherrie Flick
Flash fiction tends to be accompanied by the assumption that it’s easy to write. Dash off a few sentences, a handful of paragraphs, and a story miraculously appears. But the brevity can be deceptively hard. In this collection of “short (short) stories”, Pittsburgh author Sherrie Flick gives her reader enough details in a sentence — or a phrase — to make a story feel complete while still eliciting curiosity about what happens next or the backstory that led up to the situation. With succinct, tight sentences, Flick tells all that’s needed to know (His divorce settlement reads like an episode of Dallas), using food as simile (Snow covered the ground like a thick milkshake) and hooking the reader with more memorable opening lines than a frat boy. My full review, here.  (Queens Ferry Press, 2016, 224 pages)

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart
Water defines life in Haven, an island shore community off the New Jersey coast. The residents, among them teenage Mira Birul, her mother, and brother, live among the shore’s natural beauty but know that with it comes the potential danger of storms. With their emergency kits and plans, they’re prepared — until the day they’re not. During a hurricane, everything that Mira knows is questioned as circumstances are altered. Mira must figure out how to reorder everything — or, if not, to figure out how to live and understand and accept her new reality. This Is the Story of You, Beth Kephart’s twenty-first book, uses extreme weather and the topography as metaphor for the major storms of life. It’s about the resilience inside everyone, regardless of age, physical capabilities, or resources. More of my review here. (Chronicle Books, 2016, 264 pages)

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Set in England, this decadent novella takes place in 1924 and centers on Jane Fairchild, a maid to the wealthy Niven family. They are friends with the Sheringhams, whose son Paul is engaged to marry Emma Hobday.  That small detail doesn’t stop Paul or Jane from having an affair. The entire story unfolds over a few hours, making this the perfect book to read over the same amount of time. In fact, I’d say that this should be required to be read in one sitting, as I did. It’s resplendent and luxurious, sexy and suspenseful, with hints of Virginia Woolf and reminders of Mrs. Dalloway.  I loved every word and every minute I spent immersed in this one. It’s also a tribute to the power of book bloggers because I would have never have known of this one if it wasn’t for JoAnn from Lakeside Musing’s enthusiastic review. (Knopf, 2016, 192 pages)

Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer
At 13, Madelyn Branch arrives in Reliance with her mother, Rebecca, who has answered an ad in the Matrimonial Times in hopes of a better life. But because Madelyn has a port-wine birthmark covering half of her face and continuing down one side of her body, Rebecca purposefully declines to mention Madelyn in her response to Mr. Lymon Dryfus, her future husband. Instead, she passes Madelyn off as her sister. Although Madelyn agreed to this deception, that doesn’t lessen her hurt and shame. Mary Volmer gives her reader more than a few characters to keep track of (but not too many that you get lost), several side stories that are connected, and a well-developed plot. Set in 1874, this historical fiction novel covers a lot of ground — women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, love and betrayal — all within the context of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. It’s a solid read that echoes the themes of a changing time. Read my full review here.  (Soho Press, 2016, 354 pages)

 

In an upcoming post, I’ll share my favorite nonfiction books of the year.

 

 

 

may we all have our hopes, our will to try

“Sometimes I see how the brave new world arrives
And I see how it thrives in the ashes of our lives
Oh yes, man is a fool and he thinks he’ll be okay
Dragging on, feet of clay, never knowing he’s astray
Keeps on going anyway…”

“Happy New Year” – ABBA

You know how much I love ABBA and how they have a song for every possible situation and event in life. “Happy New Year” (recorded in 1980 for the “Super Trouper” album but not released as a single until 1999) feels apropos at the conclusion of this godforsaken year. And before you chastise me for being one of those miserable souls complaining how horrible 2016 was, I know it wasn’t entirely awful; some good things did occur. I’ll get to those in a minute.

Make no mistake, though: count me among those glad to be drop-kicking 2016 into the ether of time while remaining vigilant of the dark days awaiting this brave new world arriving in 2017. I speak of the political, of course, since such events have been so dominant this year and will be into the next. As focused as I am on that (and will continue to be), this was an extremely difficult, stressful, overwhelmingly hard year for our immediate family on many levels. There have been a lot of losses — namely the financial and professional, but also changes with longtime friendships and some emotional and medical setbacks. I’ve gone into this in previous posts and most of it is better left off the blog, but suffice it to say this year has been a tough one.

Jing-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-ling
The silver lining of not being able to afford a summer vacation means that I had an abundance of “use them or lose them” vacation days from work. So, I’ve been using them to catch up on TV shows, read a book or two, and spend some time with friends and family.

I’ve been binge-watching “This Is Us” and all of you who were telling me how much I would love this show were absolutely right. I know it’s been compared to “Parenthood”, but for me, it feels more like “thirtysomething”, for those of us who are old enough to remember watching that show, which was set in Philadelphia and ran from 1987-1991. Ken Olin, who played Michael Steadman on “thirtysomething” and directed several episodes, happens to be the executive producer of “This Is Us.”  Regardless, this is my kind of show and I love everything about it — the writing, the actors, the music, and (of course) the Pittsburgh setting.

Over Christmas, we spent some time back in Philly. It was a trip heavy on the nostalgia factor, which can be both good as well as unsettling. I had long, heartfelt conversations with two special people who I don’t see nearly enough, drove streets I haven’t been on for more than a decade, attended the Christmas Eve service at my former UU congregation with people who sustained us during some tough days long ago.  The Girl and I visited the family at the cemetery and I told her stories of those long gone. She and I had a delicious mother-daughter Christmas Day dinner at my all-time favorite restaurants, an unassuming gourmet Chinese place tucked in a suburban Philadelphia strip mall, the scene of many a date night back in The Husband and my glory days.

Moments That Mattered
So much of this holiday season wasn’t perfect (what is?) but many moments were pretty good. And that’s what I think I need to focus on more in 2017 — the moments themselves. Otherwise, the weighty expectations, anxiety, and emotional quagmires become too overwhelming. This isn’t a new realization or epiphany — just one that’s become more clear to me lately. Because yes, even in this craptastic and depressing year, there were some good moments. There’s always some good. Sometimes it’s hidden and hard to find, which means we need to look closer, go deeper.

Here’s some of what was good about this year:

I stepped up my writing game a bit this year with several book reviews published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and on Shelf Awareness.

Both kids made the honor roll this past semester.

I spent an inspiring and joyful day in my hometown connecting with my MRKH sisters.

I started running, at age 47, and discovered it’s not like high school gym class after all and, as such, I really like it.

Related to the running, I’ve lost 11 pounds.

A friend sent a generous gift.

I got to see Hillary Clinton the day before the election, and was close enough to wave and holler thank you.

Our cat made it through her dental surgery. (All of her teeth, sans two, needed to be removed.)

I went back to church.

And this. Oh my God, this … this absolute highlight of my year.

Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh 2016 cast, pre-show toast before our May 6, 2016 performance. Photo credit: Ashley Mikula Photography.

Being in Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh is one of my most significant and personally meaningful accomplishments — not only of 2016, but of my LIFE — and it will remain that way for me forever. I stepped way, way out of my comfort zone by auditioning for a chance to tell 500 strangers the most personal, intimate, defining story of my life in a performance shared via YouTube. (No pressure or anxiety there.) It was an experience that changed me. It was, without a doubt, the highlight of my year.

I hope that 2016 held some good moments for you, too. Without a doubt, it has been quite the year — and the one we’re headed into is, I’m afraid, going to be one where we will see some unprecedented moments that will change all of us. We will keep on going anyway, because, really, what other choice do we have?

Happy New Year, my friends. Here’s ABBA to take us out.

Happy New Year
Happy New Year
May we all have a vision now and then
Of a world where every neighbor is a friend
Happy New Year
Happy New Year
May we all have our hopes, our will to try
If we don’t we might as well lay down and die
You and I

Sunday Salon/Currently … The Year Spins on Unheeding

Sunday Salon banner

“Time, always almost ready 
to happen, leans over our shoulders reading 
the headlines for something not there. “Republicans 
Control Congress” — the year spins on unheeding.”

Those lines from William Stafford’s “Reading the Big Weather” certainly seem apt for this particular moment in time, as this dreadful year of unprecedented (or, rather, unpresidented) moments spins unheeding down to its near conclusion. A glimpse at the news shows that there certainly has been no shortage of unheeded things.

Of course my first interpretation of this correlates to the election and tomorrow’s convening of the Electoral College.  Save for a Christmas miracle and the ghost of Hamilton,  they’ll likely vote to put the most unqualified, thin-skinned, egotistical, racist, sexist, narcissistic, hateful liar and abuser ever imaginable in charge of our country. It doesn’t need to be said that I fervently hope that Santa and Alexander are in cahoots, because nothing else can save us from our apparent doom, it seems. It is all so discouraging and depressing.

As I write this, though, what to my wondering eyes did appear but word via Facebook of a true Christmas miracle here in Pittsburgh. I’ve been following for some time now Caitlin O’Hara’s need for new lungs. Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis on her 2nd birthday, Caitlin’s mom (novelist Maryanne O’Hara) has been chronicling their wait for a double-lung transplant after Caitlin, now 33, was officially listed as a candidate in April 2014.  Because she wasn’t eligible to receive a lung transplant at a hospital near her Boston home, Caitlin and her mother moved here to Pittsburgh to be closer to UPMC, which thankfully agreed to accept Caitlin as a transplant candidate, despite her high-risk status.

Last week, as Caitlin remained on life support, one of her surgeons declared her “the sickest person in the United States” awaiting a lung transplant. The situation was truly tenuous and fragile — and today, word comes of a donor and that the surgery has been completed

(A sad update:  I’m heartbroken to share that Caitlin passed away on Wednesday, December 21, three days after receiving her new lungs. She fought tremendously to live but was so very sick. I never met her but I feel as if I know her so well from her mother’s posts and Caitlin’s own writings. My deepest condolences to her family and friends who loved her so much.) 

Arctic temperatures have frozen Pittsburgh all this week and this weekend’s weather was just downright bizarre with snow and ice storms in the morning, then nearly 50 degrees. Late last night, there were rumbles of thunder. But, of course, Mr. Tweeter-in-Chief doesn’t believe in the likes of big weather (to bring this back to Stafford’s poetry) so, you know, nothing to see here.

a-scripture-of-leavesThis week in books I only managed to finish A Scripture of Leaves, William Stafford’s collection of poetry that was first published in 1990.  In the immediate shock post-election, I remember someone or someplace mentioning Stafford’s work and when I saw this slim, unassuming volume in the library, I picked it up, not knowing much about him but later learning that he was a pacifist and conscientious objector. Those themes show in his work with these poems set in nature and exploring themes of religion, social justice and the environment.

As the year winds down, I have an abundance of use-it-or-lose-it vacation time. Tomorrow at noon begins my official 13 days of Christmas vacation from work—save for one project that will need some paying attention to during this break. I have a pile of books at the ready, several blog posts waiting to be written along with some blog maintenance, a smattering of decluttering around the house, and a handful of appointments to keep both the cars and psyches in working order. Some (okay, all) the Christmas shopping still awaits along with some time with friends and family in Philly.

Mercury goes retrograde tomorrow. And so we spin on.

Mornings we see our breath, Weeds
sturdy for winter are waiting down
by the tracks. Birds, high and silent
pass almost invisible over town.

Time, always almost ready
to happen, leans over our shoulders reading
the headlines for something not there. “Republicans
Control Congress”—the year spins on unheeding.

The moon drops back toward the sun, a sickle
gone faint in the dawn: there is a weather
of things that happen too faint for headlines,
but tremendous, like willows touching the river.

This earth we are riding keeps trying to tell us
something with its continuous scripture of leaves.  

“Reading the Big Weather” by William Stafford