Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Great Tool for Comparing Health Care Plans and a Chance to Help a Stranger

For those of you who are trying to research the issues related to the upcoming Presidential election, I've stumbled on tool that you may find helpful. The web site Health08.org has a wealth of data including each candidate's positions, speeches, videos, podcasts and news as they relate to health care.

Most useful, there is an interactive tool that allows a side by side comparison of the Presidential candidates on key health care issues.

Whatever your views are and whichever candidate you favor, please be informed and take the time to make sure your candidate's views represent you.

Campaign ads and sound bites on television aren't enough.

* * *

While I'm on the subject of health care, everyone's favorite anonymous New York editor, Moonrat of Editorial Ass is sponsoring a very important raffle. Read more here:

"Dear Beloved Blogging Fellows,

Recently, a friend of mine was diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma. She is only 28 and is fighting back hard, but her valor is frustrated by the fact that she has no insurance. Medicaid will be kicking in for her in about a month, but in the meantime there are some hurdles that nothing will help her get over but money.

Of course, there are lots of benefits and pots for me to throw money in. Alas... I work in publishing and have no money. I was bemoaning this to my darling Ello, and she thought of this fantastic idea: I should raffle off my editorial services. So that's what we're going to try here.


Prizes available:

-One winner: A full manuscript evaluation (up to 120,000 words)*
-One winner: A partial manuscript evaluation (up to 50 page)*
-One winner: A query letter and revised query letter critique*
-Five winners: A choice from select titles in Moonrat's library, which will be mailed with a love letter from Moonrat, who enjoys writing love letters

I've started this new, temporary blog to host a raffle for my friend. You can buy tickets, check the donation log, and see how much progress has been made on each of the raffled lots here.

*please note: these are critiques with an eye toward editorial suggestions, and will in no way be considered submissions to me or my company

General Guidelines (and my very best attempts to make the whole process honest and transparent)

-The raffle will run between now, Tuesday, September 30th, and 8 pm on Tuesday, October 7th, when lots will be drawn.

-Winners will be announced (or their anonymous IDs, if they prefer) on Editorial Ass no later than 11:59 pm on Tuesday, October 7th.

-Prizes have no expiration date--you can ask for your prize redemption anytime between now and, well, I guess 2020.

-Turnaround time for prize redemption is 2 weeks (i.e. if you send me your manuscript on the 1st of November, I'll need until the 15th to get you my comments).

-All prizes are transferable. If you do not have a query letter that needs critiquing but you have a friend who does, you can gift your winning prize on your friend.

-On top of the instant confirmation email from PayPal, you will receive a confirmation email from me by midnight on the calendar day on which you purchased your raffle ticket. My email to you will include your lot number(s).

-On my end, lot numbers will be written on highly scientific bits of paper, which will be dropped into one of four of the rally monkey's highly scientific baseball hats. Lots will be drawn from each hat at 8 pm on Tuesday, October 7.

-You will have the option to purchase raffle tickets under your real name or an anonymous ID. You may specify a code name or number upon receiving my confirmation email.

-I've opened a PayPal account, which will allow you and me both to maintain our identities. PayPal is free for you and only charges me $.30 and 3% off each transaction.

-All raffle ticket purchasers will be fully and publicly disclosed for accountability purposes. At midnight each day the raffle is active, the names (or anonymous IDs, if you choose not to have your name listed) of all the people who purchased raffle tickets for a particular lot will be listed in separate recorded posts. When you buy a raffle ticket, please check the name roster the next day to make sure your name is up. If it's not, email me ASAP at moonratty@gmail.com and we'll straighten it out.

-Again, for accountability, I have opened up a separate bank account that will receive nothing but PayPal payments for this one raffle. A record of the balance will be available for anyone who requests it. The entire account will be emptied at the end of the raffle, and our proud balance will be prominently displayed on Ed Ass.

I hope I haven't forgotten anything. If I have left any stones unturned, please drop me a note or comment and I will amend this record ASAP.

I will leave this post floating at the top of my blog for the next week. New posts will appear below it. All regularly scheduled publication will carry on as it always does!

Please, please tell your friends.

The Mischief Fights Cancer"

The direct link to The Mischief Fights Cancer is here. For readers and writers alike, this is an excellent opportunity to enter a raffle and help a very young woman who has no health insurance and who could be any one of us. At the same time, this is an opportunity to win some very valuable prizes.

For those of you who believe in the power of prayer, please include this young lady in yours.

A Question on the Bailout

Just out of curiosity -- do you think Congress should vote to pass the $700B bailout? I have my own opinion on this and apparently there is a great deal of disagreement among the constituents and elected officials. What do you think? If you think yes, why and if you think no, why?

This has is a totally non-election related, non-partisan question.

And The Winner is Debra and ME!

I wrote each name down on tiny pieces of paper, shook them up, and Scott made the blind selection. Debra of From Skilled Hands fame and Little Blue Santa renown, please email your mailing address to lisa dot eudaemonia at gmail dot com and I will have your copy of Orange Mint and Honey to you pronto! I know you're going to love this book.

I apologize to all for the delay in announcing the winner. Nobody wants to hear my whining, but I was sick and miserable all weekend. I should be reading, writing, visiting and spouting political nonsense again in short order. Thank you for your patience.

What goes around apparently does come around because I was the lucky winner of a copy of Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin last week and my book arrived yesterday from the author himself with a charming, personalized inscription.

This book and I were meant to find each other. Months ago, when the book was first published in hardcover, I read the reviews and I was tempted to buy it, but I resisted. Maybe it was the towering TBR stack and maybe it was my resistance to reading a novel written by an academic. The more I read about Matrimony and about Joshua Henkin, the more I wanted to read the book. Then, Joshua Henkin guest blogged at The Elegant Variation this summer. Not only did he guest blog -- he super-blogged. This series of 24 guest blog posts at TEV concludes here, but scroll backwards and read them all. What a great series of posts for writers.

I am sure I'll have much more to say about Matrimony when I post about books I've read in October. Like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (which I read and LOVED in September), Matrimony was a book the author took many years to complete. I suspect I'll find the same qualities of fine prose in Matrimony that I did in Sawtelle. I won my copy of the book at Work-in-Progress, a blog in which author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary. Lots of great things here and now I'm of course anxious to read some of Leslie Pietrzyk's work.

Lots of water, hot herbal tea, cough syrup and tissues have been consumed in our germy house these last days and alas, the glorious rewriting I envisioned for myself over the weekend did not take place. Oy. What are you going to do?

Like millions of others, Scott and I have been focused on the election and on the economy. We thought the debate was pretty exciting and although we thought it felt like somewhat of a draw at the end, apparently America's undecideds were more decidedly pro-Obama by the end.

The $700B economic bill is giving me chilling deja vu about the decision to invade Iraq back in 2003. Totally different issues, but I feel a familiar tendency to frighten the American public into supporting something we don't quite understand and that I doubt Congress really understands either. Me personally? I hate the idea of pouring $700B our taxpayer money into private industry and I really don't understand how it all trickles down to hurt "Main Street" in the end. I'll keep my eyes and ears open and hope the politicians can help us to all understand.

Everybody have the calendars cleared for the Vice Presidential debate on Thursday? I sure do! The selections of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin speak volumes about Barack Obama and John McCain. Now let's see how these two do when speaking for themselves and their running mates.

Here's a little sanity check for Eudaemonia readers. Have you decided who you'll vote for yet? Has any event made you change your mind or confirmed your decision since the conventions and if so, what what it? Maybe because of my background in the military, foreign policy is always my biggest focus. That's because I believe that how we implement and fund foreign policy efforts directly drives how we tend to domestic programs. After the debate, I felt like I was watching an old world/Cold War view of the world pitted against a 21st century globalized view of the world and that you can't separate what happens to health care from when or if we leave Iraq. How about you? How much does foreign relations affect your view of the candidates?

DISCLAIMER: I think I'm still a little feverish, so if absolutely nothing I've said in this post makes any sense at all, then mea culpa.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Carleen Brice is the Breakout Author of the Year!

Hey everybody! Drop by The Pajama Gardener and wish our good friend Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey a big congratulations. She is in New York City as we speak and celebrating last night's award from the African American Literary Awards Show as the Breakout Author of the Year! Looks like they haven't updated their site yet, but based on the big names among last year's winners there is some stiff competition for this award!

Woohoo!!! Congratulations for this much deserved award for a great novel! Stop by here and leave a stone (o) or a comment and a winner will be chosen at random at the end of the weekend to receive a free copy of Carleen's book.

Can't wait that long? Order it online from Amazon here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Demand the Debate -- Please?

And an update to the post -- the debate will take place as scheduled, according to an announcement from John McCain's campaign: http://tinyurl.com/4shldm

We interrupt my obsession with books other people write and the collection of words I call my work in progress for this plea from Democracy in Action. This is actually the second such petition I've received in so many days about the debate scheduled to take place tomorrow (Friday).
Regardless of which candidate you support and in particular, for those who are undecided, the Presidential debates are a long-standing part of our democratic process and I urge everyone to watch them. The debates are the first real opportunity we get to see the candidates address the issues and express their similarities and differences in an environment that's arguably controlled and where the playing field is level. I'm passing on this petition to demand (well, I'd request but that's just the way I am) that the debate take place tomorrow, as scheduled:

In the last 24 hours, more than 6,500 people have signed "Demand the Debate," asking the Commission on Presidential Debates and both Senators Obama and McCain to commence with Friday's scheduled debate. Can you tell everyone you know to join you and sign this petition?


Tomorrow we're going to deliver your petition to the Commission on Presidential Debates in person (and to the Obama and McCain campaigns electronically), but we need to get as many signatures as we can.

Please ask your friends, family, and neighbors and co-workers to sign our petition by 11am on Friday. Click here to use our tell-a-friend tool to send our petition to people you know:


Scott and I plan to go to Scott's Dad's house tomorrow night, order some pizza and watch the action.

How about you? How many people plan to watch? Does anyone plan to watch with other people?

Odds and Ends:

On the subject of debate, there is a great HBO documentary on high school debating, called "Resolved". Scott and I saw this a couple of months ago. From HBO's website:

"Through the stories of two debate teams, the fascinating intricacies of high school debate give way to a portrait of the equally complex racial and class divide in American education in Resolved. As Matt and Sam, gifted debaters from an affluent Texas suburb, rise to the semifinals in their bid to win the national Tournament of Champions, Richard and Louis, talented inner-city debaters from Long Beach, CA, mount a successful challenge to modern debate by refocusing on personal experience and dialogue in their own quest for the championship. This 90-minute film offers a verité, behind-the-scenes look at the stresses and pressures of this highly competitive pursuit, while serving as a primer on the idiosyncratic techniques that have evolved over the years in high-school policy debate. Inspiring and enlightening, Resolved reveals a constantly shifting sport that is as much philosophy as it is a competition."

It's an incredible piece of film work, and high school debate has evolved into something I had no idea existed. Watch it if you get a chance. Watch the trailer here.

HBO is on a roll with good documentaries. Airing now is The Black List. Here's the HBO synopsis:

"Part of a multimedia initiative, The Black List: Volume One is the brainchild of renowned portrait photographer/filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and acclaimed NPR radio host, journalist and former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, with Greenfield-Sanders directing and Mitchell conducting the interviews. Mitchell, by design, is never seen on camera or heard, a strategy that allows the subjects' own voices to remain the focus. The actual title of the film itself, The Black List, was first conceived by Mitchell as an answer to the persistent taint that western culture has applied to the word 'black.'

The Black List's interviewees come from a diverse collection of disciplines from the worlds of the arts, sports, politics, business and government, and include, in order of appearance: Slash, former Guns N' Roses guitarist; Toni Morrison, author and Nobel laureate; Keenen Ivory Wayans, film writer/director, creator of TV's In Living Color; Vernon Jordan, lawyer and former president of the National Urban League; Faye Wattleton, current President of the Center for the Advancement of Women and former President of Planned Parenthood; Marc Morial, former Mayor of New Orleans and current National Urban League president; Serena Williams, eight-time Grand Slam tennis champion; Lou Gossett Jr., Oscar®-winning actor; Lorna Simpson, artist and photographer; Mahlon Duckett, former Negro League Baseball star; Zane, best-selling erotic author and publisher; Al Sharpton, pastor, activist and 2004 Presidential candidate; Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, Hall of Fame basketball great; Thelma Golden, art curator at the Whitney Museum and now the Studio Museum in Harlem; Sean Combs, mogul, actor and music producer; Susan Rice, former Assistant Secretary of State and Barack Obama's senior campaign advisor; Chris Rock, comedian, producer and director; Suzan-Lori Parks, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright; Richard Parsons, former Time Warner CEO; Dawn Staley, 3- time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA All-Star and current Temple University women's basketball head coach; and Bill T. Jones, Tony Award-winning dancer and director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. "

The Black List had a profound impact on me. We're still struggling to deal with race in America. White America doesn't much discuss it outside of close knit circles. It makes us uncomfortable. The prevailing attitudes are either that it's not a problem anymore and we're past it, we're in denial and claim to be "color blind", or we want race to no longer be an issue, but we know it is and we don't know what, if anything we can do about it. I suppose there are other conversations that go on that I don't have any insight into. Racists tend to keep to themselves with their views, unless they're part of extremist groups that like to go public.

These short vignettes from well-known African Americans shed some light into the African American experience in a way that's rarely seen by the average white American or maybe in a way that's rarely been seen by anyone. My cable company has The Black List available "on demand" right now. See the clip in the Making of the Black List here. Video out-takes, including one from Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison are here.

Let me know if you've seen either of these excellent documentaries. What did you think?

And here's an amazing thing called The Wisdom Project. Watch it. You'll be glad you did.

I'll end by sharing Leo Kottke Radio, one of my Pandora radio stations. I'd give anything to see how he does what he does with only two hands.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Raw Clay and Alternate Endings

Writing the first draft of a novel has been challenging, fun, frustrating, exhilarating, depressing and wonderful. Over time I've been able to learn enough to get on the right path and I've accepted that each writer is on her own to figure out what works best for her. Here are some things I've learned that work for me:

1. Books and classes on craft can be a huge help, but only when I take advantage of them at the right time and only if I'm not subconsciously using them to procrastinate. The trick is to close the book, finish the class, stop effing around and get writing.

2. Reading is crucial. I am convinced that 97% of what I know about writing, I've absorbed through a lifetime of reading.

3. Web sites and blogs on writing, books, publishing and literary criticism have taught me a great deal. Starting a blog has introduced me to a writing community and it's helped me to clarify my own thoughts. On the other hand, the internet is the single biggest threat to my writing time, so I've had to tackle my addiction. Sometimes I specify a time limit for web surfing, or I go offline for a specific number of days, or deny myself internet access until I've hit a specific writing goal. All of those methods work, but it's absolutely critical that I establish limits.

4. I have to write every day or I lose rapport with my work. Author Tayari Jones made a comment I loved after she returned from a vacation. She said, "My novel is like a cat. It's mad at me for leaving it alone for a week. Now it refuses to speak to me." I find this is true for me. If I don't keep the novel with me all the time, it gets cold. Daily word count goals don't work for me. If I don't make the number, I feel like I've failed and I'm discouraged. My goal is to write something every day, and I usually end up writing more than I expected. Sometimes I only manage a paragraph and now and then I miss a day. If I'm really stuck, I hammer out a piece of flash fiction that's unrelated to my novel or I jot down notes about the novel and that usually triggers something.

5. To my surprise, writing longhand works for me. I used to write exclusively on my laptop, but this summer I started writing in a notebook and it opened up something different. I still generate quite a bit of new work directly on the keyboard, but often it's after I write a fair amount in longhand and transcribe it. Writing in a notebook allows me complete isolation from the internet. I always have a notebook and pen close by so
I tend to write more. I've captured many more ideas since I started doing this because I don't need to get my laptop and open a document when inspiration strikes.

6. I've tried several approaches to writing a novel. I doubt I'll ever be someone who outlines. I've written chapters and edited as I wrote them. It seemed to work pretty well at the time, but in hindsight, it didn't work nearly as well as I thought it did. For the last several months, I've been working the story out as I go along. I am committed to moving forward until I get to the end of the first draft. I thank Tim Hallinan and his Writers' Resources for helping me understand the importance of finishing a complete first draft and giving me a sense of urgency to do it. As many wise writers have said, "you can't revise a blank page".

This is what is working for me now. Next week may be different. I feel like I'm working with wet, raw clay and by the time I get to the end, I'll have something with a recognizable shape. I may have to tear entire chunks off, or move them around, or add some, but I'll have something I can work with. Throughout the process, I've made notes on lots of things I need to change. I confess to rewriting my first chapter once already, but I've resisted further temptation to stop to rewrite and revise before I finish.

The first draft is nearly done, but I'll share something that many of you may find horrifying. I still don't know how it ends. I'm not one of those people who has known from the beginning exactly how the story ends.

Scott and I watched the movie, Married Life on DVD tonight. I always watch DVD special features and sometimes I'll even watch the movie over again with the commentary on, so I can understand why the film makers made certain choices. Married Life had three alternate endings and the film makers screened them to decide which one to use, based on audience response. This is a common practice and it's not surprising that the reason many novel adaptations end differently on film is that test audiences often react negatively to a book's original ending.

I've been struggling a bit because I'm ready to end my story and I haven't yet had that moment of clarity I was hoping to have. I suppose if Hollywood spends the time and money to shoot and edit four separate endings for a movie before they decide which to choose, perhaps I'm not the only writer in the world who is challenged by the end. I've noticed that Amazon reviewers tend to complain about unsatisfying endings more than just about anything else. No doubt, there is a lot of pressure on endings.

The importance of the ending to a novel varies for me as a reader, depending on what kind of story it is. Mysteries and thrillers have got to tie things up at the end or the book is ruined for me. With more general types of fiction, the ending is still important, but less so as the reader isn't usually expecting a "payoff".

What about you? Can you enjoy a book all the way through and then be disappointed by the end? Have you ever been angry at an author because of how a book ended? Do you tolerate a mediocre book, hoping for a payoff at the end? Does genre factor into it for you?

For writers, when do you know the end of your story? Have you rewritten endings that you initially thought would work, but then decided were wrong?

Odds and ends:

Rent it or buy it, but watch Young at Heart. I will watch this anytime I find myself whining about the unfairness of growing older. This documentary is uplifting and touching. I challenge you to make it through without crying at least two or three times and I promise you'll laugh most of the time.

Everybody has probably found Pandora Radio by now, so I wanted to share my Art Tatum Radio. It's something I can write to. Maybe you'll like it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

We Want to Drill, Why?

When I saw the throngs at the RNC chanting "drill, baby drill", I thought maybe somebody had slipped some acid in my bottled water and I was hallucinating. There was a lot of talk about new domestic drilling, but somehow I'd missed the punchline and I wasn't able to fathom what the motivation was.

I think we all agree on three things about our use of oil:

1. We'd like to end our dependence on the import of foreign oil for geo-political reasons
2. We'd like to end our dependence on oil in order to minimize the effect on the environment of both carbon emissions and the ecological damage that new drilling may cause
3. Petroleum based products have gotten very expensive

So what do people think that new offshore drilling projects will accomplish in the same amount of time that the pursuit of cleaner, more efficient sources of energy won't? All I can imagine is that there is a large group of people who think domestic drilling will decrease the price of gas at the pump. I hope that's not what they think, but here's an article from Time Business and Technology from back in June of this year on the subject:

"On Wednesday morning President George W. Bush urged Congress to overturn a 26-year ban on offshore oil drilling in the U.S. and open a part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to petroleum exploration. Flanked by the secretaries of Energy and the Interior, Bush also proposed streamlining the construction process for new oil refineries, and explained that these moves would 'take pressure off gas prices over time by expanding the amount of American-made oil and gasoline.' Coming a day after Republican presumptive presidential nominee John McCain made a similar appeal to enhance domestic oil exploration, Bush was sending an unsubtle election-year message to the American public: I care about the economic toll of $4-a-gallon gas, and Democrats in Congress, who have opposed such an expansion, don't.

But there's a flaw in that logic: even if tomorrow we opened up every square mile of the outer continental shelf to offshore rigs, even if we drilled the entire state of Alaska and pulled new refineries out of thin air, the impact on gas prices would be minimal and delayed at best. A 2004 study by the government's Energy Information Administration (EIA) found that drilling in ANWR would trim the price of gas by 3.5 cents a gallon by 2027. (If oil prices continue to skyrocket, the savings would be greater, but not by much.) Opening up offshore areas to oil exploration — currently all coastal areas save a section of the Gulf of Mexico are off-limits, thanks to a congressional ban enacted in 1982 and supplemented by an executive order from the first President Bush — might cut the price of gas by 3 to 4 cents a gallon at most, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And the relief at the pump, such as it is, wouldn't be immediate — it would take several years, at least, for the oil to begin to flow, which is time enough for increased demand from China, India and the rest of the world to outpace those relatively meager savings. 'Right now the price of oil is set on the global market,' says Kevin Lindemer, executive managing director of the energy markets group for the research firm Global Insight. President Bush's move 'would not have an impact.'"Continue reading here.

You can read about John McCain's Energy Plan here and Barack Obama's Energy Plan here.

To drill or not to drill really depends on how committed the country is to conservation and to a transition to renewable energy. Today, 20% of our electricity is generated by nuclear power plants. There are already something like 120 of them in operation in the United States. In the thirty years since the last nuclear power plant was built, there have been a lot of improvements to the technology and to safety. Nuclear power is in widespread use around the world and the technology already exists. Other types of energy are in various stages of development, but by focusing on sustainable forms of energy, we not only reduce our dependence on foreign oil and our dangerous emissions, but we create new jobs and industry.

Can we agree that we need to take action now, and if so, what do you think we should do to address this problem? Is there a point I'm missing about drilling?

* * *

Okay, it's Monday evening and I've let myself become obsessed with the election issues. Tomorrow, I will not Twitter, I will not blog, I will not surf the headlines or conduct any more research. I will not return until I've hit at least 53,000 words on my manuscript.

I hope those of you who are more accustomed to hearing me blather about books and writing and other miscellaneous neuroses will weather this period with me and I hope you're talking about these issues too, whether online or in the privacy of your own homes.

I hope to be back by Thursday with another 2,200 words of gibberish completed. Wish me luck.

Over and out.

"It's the economy, stupid"

From Wikipedia:

"'It's the economy, stupid' was a phrase in American politics widely used during Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush. For a time, Bush was considered unbeatable because of foreign policy developments such as the end of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War. The phrase, coined by Clinton campaign strategist James Carville, refers to the notion that Clinton was a better choice because Bush had not adequately addressed the economy, which had recently undergone a recession."

This phrase has been running through my mind, and I understand the context, but I've never understood the economy, which makes me feel just a little stupid since it's the issue that pollsters believe matters most in the election.

To me, and I suspect to most Americans, "the economy", how it all works, how tax cuts, increases, subsidies, rebates, interest rates, new jobs, productivity, the unemployment rate, etc. all factor into how financially secure we all feel is a big black hole of voodoo. Consequently, the surface level sound bites on what each candidate plans to do don't mean much without a little education.

Last night I read an article by David Leonhardt wrote for New York Times Magazine, called How Obama Reconciles Dueling Views on Economy. It was published on August 24th and it's fourteen printed pages long, but it's the best primer I've found on the economy, the history of how recent administrations have approached and impacted it and Barack Obama's economic plan. The author discussed Obama's plan with the candidate at length and consulted with leading economists. The McCain plan is also addressed, although the author felt it didn't have a sufficient level of detail for an in-depth analysis, beyond stating that it will be a fairly similar approach to the current administration's.

"As Barack Obama prepares to accept the Democratic nomination this week, it is clear that the economic policies of the next president are going to be hugely important. Ever since Wall Street bankers were called back from their vacations last summer to deal with the convulsions in the mortgage market, the economy has been lurching from one crisis to the next. The International Monetary Fund has described the situation as “the largest financial shock since the Great Depression.” The details are too technical for most of us to understand. (They’re too technical for many bankers to understand, which is part of the problem.) But the root cause is simple enough. In some fundamental ways, the American economy has stopped working.

The fact that the economy grows — that it produces more goods and services one year than it did in the previous one — no longer ensures that most families will benefit from its growth. For the first time on record, an economic expansion seems to have ended without family income having risen substantially. Most families are still making less, after accounting for inflation, than they were in 2000. For these workers, roughly the bottom 60 percent of the income ladder, economic growth has become a theoretical concept rather than the wellspring of better medical care, a new car, a nicer house — a better life than their parents had.

Americans have still been buying such things, but they have been doing so with debt. A big chunk of that debt will never be repaid, which is the most basic explanation for the financial crisis. Even after the crisis has passed, the larger problem of income stagnation will remain. It’s hardly the economy’s only serious problem either. There is also the slow unraveling of the employer-based health-insurance system and the fact that, come 2011, the baby boomers will start to turn 65, setting off an enormous rise in the government’s Medicare and Social Security obligations.

Most of these problems aren’t immediate, which helps explain why they have gone unaddressed for so long. And the United States remains a fabulously prosperous country, relative to almost any other country, at any point in history. Yet Americans seem to realize that something has gone wrong. In recent polls, about 80 percent of respondents say the economy is in bad shape, and almost 70 percent say it’s going to get worse. Together, these answers make for the most downbeat assessment since at least the early 1980s, and underscore that the next president will be inheriting a set of domestic problems as serious as any the country has faced in a long time.

John McCain’s economic vision, as he has laid it out during the campaign, amounts to a slightly altered version of Republican orthodoxy, with tax cuts at the core. Obama, on the other hand, has more-detailed proposals but a less obvious ideology.

Well before this point on the presidential calendar, it’s usually clear where a candidate fits within the political spectrum of his party. With Obama, there is vast disagreement about just how liberal he is, especially on the economy. My favorite example came in mid-June, shortly after Obama named Jason Furman, a protégé of Robert Rubin, the centrist former Treasury secretary, as his lead economic adviser. Labor leaders recoiled, and John Sweeney, the head of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., worried aloud about “corporate influence on the Democratic Party.” Then, the following week, Kimberley Strassel, a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board, wrote a column titled, “Farewell, New Democrats,” concluding that Obama’s economic policies amounted to the end of Clintonian centrism and a reversion to old liberal ways.

Some of the confusion stems from Obama’s own strategy of presenting himself as a postpartisan figure. A few weeks ago, I joined him on a flight from Orlando to Chicago and began our conversation by asking about his economic approach. He started to answer, but then interrupted himself. “My core economic theory is pragmatism,” he said, “figuring out what works.”

This, of course, is not the whole story. Invoking pragmatism doesn’t help the average voter much; ideology, though it often gets a bad name, matters, because it offers insight into how a candidate might actually behave as president. I have spent much of this year trying to get a handle on what is sometimes called Obamanomics and have come away thinking that Obama does have an economic ideology. It’s just not a completely familiar one. Depending on how you look at it, he is both more left-wing and more right-wing than many people realize."

You may need to subscribe to the NYT online to read the article in its entirety, but it's well sourced and it was well-received by experts who commented on it.

Since the economy is arguably the most critical issue facing all of us, I hope all of us try to become as informed about the subject as possible.

Am I alone in feeling ignorant about economics? Please tell me I'm not!

* * *

I've resigned myself to including posts about the election and the issues on this formerly apolitical blog, but my intent is to share information I believe is worthy of discussion, not to preach to the unconverted.

This week, the sum total of writing I managed to get done was only about 700 words, and I didn't read (for pleasure) nearly as much as I usually do. Finding a way to refocus on my writing is proving to be newly difficult. I had almost found a way to divorce myself periodically from the internet, but ever since the conventions, I have been sucked into the vortex of election news.

How many of you are in this quandry? As important as my writing is to me, I almost feel self-indulgent when I abandon research on where the candidates stand on human rights, health care or foreign policy in order to sink back into my own world. How does my obligation as a citizen to be an informed voter weigh against my obligation to myself not to lose momentum on my novel?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

How Do You Decide?

After reading all of the comments on my post the other day, Can't We Agree to Disagree?, it's clear most of us feel strongly about this election and its outcome.

Shauna made a really interesting comment when she speculated that Americans may not be as far apart as we may think. She said:

"From what I've read in the paper, poll after poll shows that most Americans support the platform and ideas of the Democratic party (when they are presented as ideas and not linked to Democrats). So most of us are in general agreement about what we want for the country."

I think there's something to that point. The words "Democrat" and "liberal" have had such negative connotations for so many for such a long time that I think people often refuse to hear or consider anything coming from that camp.

I found an interesting website, called MyElectionChoices and I can't vouch for how recently it's been updated, but it does provide a fair measure for how much you agree with each candidate on the issues. There is a long list of topics ranging from the 2nd Amendment/Gun Control, Abortion, Education, the Environment and Energy, Iraq, Social Security, Stem Cell Research, the War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security and a number of others. There are 4-6 statements listed for each topic and you select each statement that you agree with. Each statement was made by either Senator McCain or Senator Obama. The survey keeps a running tally of how many of each candidate's statements you're in agreement with.

My survey results indicate I agree with 40 of Barack Obama's statements and 22 of John McCain's. That doesn't surprise me. Keep in mind, there is a limited set of specific quotes, so this merely provides a very high level indication of how aligned you are with each candidate's statements on each issue.

To learn more about what each candidate says on the issues, Barack Obama's Blueprint for America is here and John McCain's webpage on the issues is here. Another useful resource I've found to compare the candidates is the On the Issues website. It provides specific quotes and voting records. You can find Barack Obama on the issues and John McCain on the issues.

If all things were equal, determining where the candidates stand on the issues would be enough to base a decision on. But all things aren't equal and there are potentially dozens of other factors to look at and those factors will be different for each of us. We're all different and some people base their voting decisions on a single issue or a personal value.

For me, where the candidates stand on the issues determines at least 55% of my decision. Other factors include:

1. Education and intelligence. In the arena of world leaders, I believe our President is daily being asked to engage in a battle of wits. My opinion is that it's best if he's armed. Regular "folks" are great, people you'd like to have a beer with are great, but I don't want someone who's just average responsible for our national security. I'm in favor of electing leaders who are the best and the brightest. It is significant to me that Barack Obama attended Columbia and went on to Harvard Law School. It is significant to me that he was President of Harvard Law Review and that prior to becoming a US Senator, he taught Constitutional Law. It tells me he has a very grounded understanding of our government.

2. How does the rest of the world see the candidates? Prior to both conventions this summer, the BBC commissioned a poll in 22 countries to assess whether US relations with the world would improve, stay the same or deteriorate under Barack Obama or under John McCain. The results indicate almost unilaterally that the world view of the United States and our relationships with the countries surveyed would improve under an Obama Presidency. Some people may not consider this pertinent to their decision making, but for me, it's very important.

3. How does the candidate come across during interviews? When a candidate is interviewed, and particularly when the interviewer is tough or adversarial, we get a good indication of how well the candidate responds under pressure and we have an excellent of idea of how well versed he is on the issues and how well he responds to opposing views. Presidents frequently take private meetings with heads of state and need to be capable of doing so without advisors. Presidents should be accessible to the Washington Press Corps and should be able to appropriately answer difficult questions.

Barack Obama appeared in a multi-part interview with Bill O"Reilly on Fox News in early September. Watch Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 and analyze how you think Obama does. O'Reilly hits just about every hot button issue, so there are some great insights here.

John McCain also appeared in a multi-part interview with Bill O'Reilly back in May. Although O'Reilly obviously has a conservative bias, I thought it was important to show McCain with the same interviewer, addressing the same issues. Watch Part 1, 2, and 3. Since the O'Reilly interview is six months old, I'm including links from his appearance Friday on The View. Here are Parts 1, 2 and 3. Admittedly, sitting on that couch would be a bit overwhelming, but I think some important things come out here.

Obama and McCain are who I'm focused on, but with the possibility that a President can die or resign, the VP candidates warrant attention too.

Here's an interview with Joe Biden on CSPAN from August, Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

For anyone who hasn't seen it, here is the ABC interview of Sarah Palin by Charlie Gibson. Here are parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

4. What are the candidate's religious views? With each subsequent election, religion seems to play a greater part. I want a candidate who believes in maintaining the separation of church and state.

5. How consistent is the candidate's stated vision with his actions? I can allow some leeway in the case of a candidate who alters his original position over time, based on new information or changes in circumstance, but I am suspicious of sudden reversals that appear to be entirely motivated by politics.

6. What does the candidate's choice of a running mate indicate about him?

7. The supreme court is comprised of seven appointees by Republican administrations and two from Democratic administrations. The party that gets in office will likely have the opportunity to make an appointment that could lead to reversals of prior decisions, Roe v. Wade being the most likely.

8. Does the candidate's race matter? Does his age?

9. Does the candidate appear to have the knowledge, intellect, experience and judgment to be President?

10. Does he have integrity and honor and truly want the best for this country? Does he make you feel confident, or does he make you feel uneasy? This question is one that comes down strictly to personal gut feel, but our intuition about who the person really is may be the most powerful part of our decision.

If you decide to check out MyElectionChoices, let me know if your answers surprise you. Which of these questions are important to you? Are there factors you'd add or take away from this list? Do you have issues that are "deal breakers"? What about the negative ads? I'm turned off by those who initiate them, not by their targets. Do you have a decision making process? What do you base your choice on?

For non-American visitors, who would you like to see us elect, based on what you've seen?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

No Politics on the Anniversary of 9/11

"Senators Obama and McCain, the Democratic and Republican nominees in November's election, will appear together at Ground Zero in the afternoon to lay wreathes in honour of the victims.

In a joint statement from the campaigns announcing their decision to visit Ground Zero together, the two men vowed to come together 'as Americans' and suspend their political campaigns for 24 hours.

'All of us came together on 9/11 - not as Democrats or Republicans - but as Americans,' the statement said. 'In smoke-filled corridors and on the steps of the Capitol; at blood banks and at vigils - we were united as one American family.'

'We will put aside politics and come together to renew that unity, to honour the memory of each and every American who died, and to grieve with the families and friends who lost loved ones,' it said.

Their appearance is to be followed by another in the evening at a Columbia University forum to discuss their views on public service.

The ceremony in downtown Manhattan will pause four times for silence - at 0846, 0903, 0959, 1029 - marking the times when the planes hit the Twin Towers, and the times when each tower fell."

Read the whole article at BBC News.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Can't We Agree to Disagree?

I've noticed a trend lately where bloggers who normally stick to one particular topic (like books or writing) are talking about the election and they're always apologetic about getting off topic and jumping into the political discussion.

Me too. I can't help it.

The funny thing is that no other election before this one has made me feel quite the sense of urgency that I do right now and I think most of us feel that way. I think I've only voted in one other Presidential election, which just goes to show how indifferent I've been in the past. I was always one of those people who kept my political thoughts to myself and didn't care to tip my hand about how I felt around other people.

But now it's what we all want to talk about and it can make for some awkward moments when we (or others) make assumptions. I got a call the other day from someone at my (Texas based) company and he asked if I'd watched the RNC speeches. Actually, it was my boss.

"I did", I said.
"Man, wasn't Sarah Palin great?"
"Um, I have to warn you, I'm pretty liberal and an Obama supporter, so no, I really didn't care for her."

Awkward silence, followed by immediate change of subject.

Now here's the thing that really bugs me. I would have really liked to find out exactly why he thought she was so terrific since I had such a negative reaction to her that I felt compelled to make a contribution to the Obama campaign as soon as she was done. But we let it go. It seems we have become so polarized and the important issues are so divisive that it doesn't seem like intelligent conversation and respect for opposing views is possible. I like to think I could remain completely calm and have a reasonable discussion with someone who has opposing views to mine, but I'm not sure I could do it in a face to face conversation. I'm sure I could do it on line.

I have a colleague I've worked with on a daily basis for eight years. We're an extremely effective sales team. We collaborate well, our talents are complementary and we generally share the same sense of humor. We've learned that to preserve our relationship, we don't talk about politics because we completely disagree on just about every issue. We don't always avoid it, but when it comes to things like the war in Iraq, health care and social programs, things have gotten pretty prickly between us on occasion.

It always starts out civilly enough, but eventually he can't stop himself from using the term "bleeding heart liberal" and then words like "selfish" and "arrogant" are coming out of my mouth.

Conversation over.

And don't get me started on the silliness I see in online forums and political blogs. Those aren't even rational, intelligent discussions. Typically, all dialogue comes down to "you're an idiot and I'm not", which certainly doesn't foster understanding.

My political discussions only seem to happen with people with whom I'm in violent agreement, and while I like validation of my views as much as the next person, it doesn't help me to understand opposing views very well and I really would like to understand them.

Am I alone in this? Are any of you able to discuss politics with people supporting views that oppose your own and do it in a meaningful, productive way? Have any of you had that moment of truth when you either discover that someone you assumed shared your views doesn't -- or when you've shocked someone by revealing opposing views to theirs?

Perhaps when it comes down to it, some of the issues are so firmly tied to our own values and ideals that it would be impossible to see the other guy's point of view. Maybe our inability to do that is our fundamental problem.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Books I Read in August 2008

Every book I read in August left me with lingering thoughts. I could write volumes about each, but I'm going to resist the urge and instead, provide a link for each to a review that echoes my sentiments.

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen was a book I resisted reading for quiet a while, due to its popularity. I was particularly interested in reading it because of the shifts in time the story takes. It's told from the point of view of a man who is ninety or ninety-three (he can't remember) in the present day and shifts back to where the real story takes place, during the depression. This review is from the New York Times Sunday Book Review. It was a unique, intriguing story and it was very well written.

Hoffman's Hunger, by Leon de Winter came to me by way of the LibaryThing Early Reviewer Program. From the Toby Press:

"Felix Hoffman’s hunger is both physical and emotional. A Dutch diplomat with a checkered career behind him, he is now Ambassador in Prague in the late 1980s; his final posting. In Kafka’s haunted city, Hoffman desperately feeds his bulimia and spends his insomniac nights studying Spinoza and revisiting the traumas of his past.

A child survivor of the Holocaust, Hoffman married and had beloved twin daughters, but a double tragedy has befallen his family; one daughter died as a young girl of leukemia, the other, who became a heroin addict, has committed suicide. This has wrecked Hoffman’s marriage and his life; he has not had one decent night’s sleep since the death of his daughter over twenty years ago, and his constant physical hunger reflects his emotional hunger for truth and understanding. When Carla, a Czech double agent, gets into Hoffman’s bed, political and emotional mayhem ensues.

Hoffman’s past and his present predicament are inextricably bound up with the tormented history of Europe over the fifty years since the Second World War. Like Europe, he is at a crossroads, and the signs point to an uncertain future. With this spellbinding philosophical thriller, a bestseller in Germany, Leon de Winter charts a search for identity which is both personal and political.

Translated from the Dutch by Arnold and Erica Pomerans."

This book really blew me away. As soon as I finished, I knew I'd read this book again. I also had the thought that this was a book I wish I could have written, and that thought doesn't often come to me. It was Leon de Winter's first novel and it was published in The Netherlands in 1990.

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill is a collection of nine stories, originally published in 1988. This interview in Nerve.com will give you a fairly good idea of the kind of ride you're in for when you read her work. I'd previously read her novel, Veronica and found that although I really liked it, Gaitskill is actually a better short fiction writer. The stories are gritty and edgy and Gaitskill has a voice unlike any writer I've ever read. Certainly, this collection is a reflection of the sexual mores and rampant drug use in the 80s. She's really an incredible writer.
She Was, by Janis Hallowell is the second novel from this Colorado writer. The main character was a political activist in the early 70's and was responsible for a university bombing that killed someone. She's lived underground since that time and as the story opens, she is about to be exposed. See this review from Bookreporter.com for more on the story. Although there have been other stories about sixties and seventies radicals, what makes this one particularly interesting is that it takes place in the post 9/11 era and therefore, public and governmental views on terrorism are quite different than they were in the eighties and nineties. This book shifts between the past and present, Hallowell does it from the points of view of two different characters and her prose is lyrical and precise.

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill reviewed in the New Yorker by James Wood here is the critically acclaimed new novel, described by Pantheon Books as:

"In a New York City made phantasmagorical by the events of 9/11, Hans--a banker originally from the Netherlands--finds himself marooned among the strange occupants of the Chelsea Hotel after his English wife and son return to London. Alone and untethered, feeling lost in the country he had come to regard as home, Hans stumbles upon the vibrant New York subculture of cricket, where he revisits his lost childhood and, thanks to a friendship with a charismatic and charming Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon, begins to reconnect with his life and his adopted country. Ramkissoon, a Gatsby-like figure who is part idealist and part operator, introduces Hans to an “other” New York populated by immigrants and strivers of every race and nationality. Hans is alternately seduced and instructed by Chuck’s particular brand of naivete and chutzpah--by his ability to a hold fast to a sense of American and human possibility in which Hans has come to lose faith.

Netherland gives us both a flawlessly drawn picture of a little-known New York and a story of much larger, and brilliantly achieved ambition: the grand strangeness and fading promise of 21st century America from an outsider’s vantage point, and the complicated relationship between the American dream and the particular dreamers. Most immediately, though, it is the story of one man--of a marriage foundering and recuperating in its mystery and ordinariness, of the shallows and depths of male friendship, of mourning and memory. Joseph O’Neill’s prose, in its conscientiousness and beauty, involves us utterly in the struggle for meaning that governs any single life."
O'Neill's prose is exceptionally beautiful and I found myself frequently reading passages more than once for the pure pleasure of it. The story was good, but by the end I felt there was something missing.

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. This, from Publisher's Weekly:
"Starred Review. Previous books such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood have established Murakami as a true original, a fearless writer possessed of a wildly uninhibited imagination and a legion of fiercely devoted fans. In this latest addition to the author's incomparable oeuvre, 15-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from home, both to escape his father's oedipal prophecy and to find his long-lost mother and sister. As Kafka flees, so too does Nakata, an elderly simpleton whose quiet life has been upset by a gruesome murder. (A wonderfully endearing character, Nakata has never recovered from the effects of a mysterious World War II incident that left him unable to read or comprehend much, but did give him the power to speak with cats.) What follows is a kind of double odyssey, as Kafka and Nakata are drawn inexorably along their separate but somehow linked paths, groping to understand the roles fate has in store for them. Murakami likes to blur the boundary between the real and the surreal—we are treated to such oddities as fish raining from the sky; a forest-dwelling pair of Imperial Army soldiers who haven't aged since WWII; and a hilarious cameo by fried chicken king Colonel Sanders—but he also writes touchingly about love, loneliness and friendship. Occasionally, the writing drifts too far into metaphysical musings—mind-bending talk of parallel worlds, events occurring outside of time—and things swirl a bit at the end as the author tries, perhaps too hard, to make sense of things. But by this point, his readers, like his characters, will go just about anywhere Murakami wants them to, whether they 'get' it or not."
I'd not read any Murakami previously, but from the first few minutes, I was hooked. John Updike's review in the New Yorker is excellent. This was another book that I wanted to begin all over again once I'd finished it.

* * *

The limits I've placed on my internet use have been working out pretty well. I expect to reach 50,000 words with The Foundling Wheel today -- word count as of this minute: 49,294. I've had a target word count in mind of roughly 65,000 - 75,000 words, so 50,000 is going to feel pretty good. Carleen assures me that the seas are considerably calmer after 50,000 and I want to believe her.

I've had to make some radical changes to my web surfing behavior in order to cut down on my time on line. I now check blogs almost exclusively through Google Reader with one or two exceptions. I still read most posts, but I have drastically cut down on the number of comments I leave. I also realized there were a handful of sites I visit regularly, even though I always seem to feel somehow annoyed or agitated after visiting, because of either the tone of the blogger or the commenters. Something led me to those sites at some point in time and I kept going back out of habit, but I realized I can no longer spare the time on the distraction. I do have to wonder if I am the only one who has had this experience. It's sort of like having that "toxic friend" who somehow always makes you feel bad about yourself, yet you keep spending time with her.

Anyone else run into this online?

I did run across a great resource that I've subscribed to in Google Reader, called 43 Folders. It's about finding the time and focus to do your best creative work. Many of you may already know about this site, since apparently it gets about 8 zillion hits a month. It's good stuff.

Facebook and MySpace have never been much of a draw for me, even though I have (poorly maintained) pages and I do have some "friends". I've pretty much abandoned most of the social networking sites in the name of time management.

On the other hand, Twitter has become a lifeline for me. There is a small group of writers I "follow" around and their regular updates on writing activities motivate me. Since I'm not posting or commenting on blogs as often, Twitter also scratches that itch to check in and be accountable for my writing.

And, the biggest danger to my limited attention span these days is the election. I've decided to watch the debates and I check out any links that my fellow Twitterers find noteworthy, but other than that, I am trying to stay away from the day to day speculation and soap opera aspects.

I do have a small achievement to share. I entered the Women on Writing Spring Flash Fiction Contest (my first submission anywhere) and I got an honorable mention for my piece called, The Frailty of Memory. If you go there, you'll have to scroll down for about ten minutes to find my name. There are quite a few winners, but I'm pretty happy about this small bit of external validation -- AND they're sending me free stuff too!

How is your writing going? Any tips or anecdotes to share on effective time management in the information age? How closely are you following the election coverage?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Working Without a Net

Working my way through the first draft of a novel has been very much like walking a tightrope without a net.

Word count as of Wednesday night, 9:57 MST: 43,610

It's been quite an education so far and something about the process has shifted. I wrote the first first chapter of The Foundling Wheel (that's not a typo -- I've written a new first chapter) between Christmas and New Year's Eve of 2007. At the time, I was embarking on a brand new story with close to a dozen other writers who were starting their own stories. To be truthful, getting through the first hundred pages wasn't all that difficult. Over time, the words slowed and then they stopped coming at all.

I didn't do much, if any writing at all between March and June. What I'd been doing to that point wasn't working anymore. I did a lot of thinking and mapped some things out visually, hoping I could see what the structure looked like and where I needed to go. Slowly, I got moving again.

In July, I went to a retreat for a week and I returned inspired and reinvigorated. I've written six more chapters since July, but something has changed in the writing. When it flows, it really flows, but I have the almost visceral sensation of vertigo. When I wrote the first few chapters it felt very concretely like I was writing. I was posting the chapters as I wrote them, so although I was writing quickly, I was editing as I wrote. I'm not doing that now. In fact, I've got unnamed characters and other unknowns denoted by a "***" so I can go back and fix them later. Sometimes I feel more like I'm typing a story and not writing one. The second pass on these new chapters will require much more extensive rewriting than the first ten or eleven and those changes will undoubtedly set off a domino effect of cuts and major rewrites to the earlier chapters as well.

Oddly, the biggest change when I write is that my anxiety is gone. Despite the fact that the writing is much less careful and I still have plenty of questions about how this story will move forward, I'm not nearly as nervous, self-conscious and worried about it as I was, even though I truly feel like I'm moving forward blindfolded at times. I've paid lip service to my goal of finishing a first draft from the beginning and it's always been my goal, but for I long time I said it more in the spirit of "fake it 'til you make it" than out of any real confidence I could do it.

I can do it. I can't explain why I suddenly know it, but I do. It's kind of exhilarating.

It seems like it's been a long time since my last post. Work has been busy, I've been getting a decent amount of writing done, I've been reading quite a bit and frankly, the DNC and the RNC have been a huge distraction.

My list of August reads will be up shortly. Other things that have my attention are this season of Mad Men and the upcoming new season of House. Yesterday, Scott and I went to see the new Woody Allen movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and I loved it.

What's keeping you busy this week?

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf