“Are there no prisons?”

OOOOk-la-homa – the stuff of Rodgers & Hammerstein musical-making – may be trading sweet waving wheatfields for more correctional facilities. Benefitting from last month’s bumper-crop of Supreme Court decisions, the state realized expanded rights of law enforcement and prosecution for crimes committed on tribal lands, and enacted the strictest anti-abortion law in the nation, criminalizing most abortion from the point of fertilization forward. Yeoww, what a June!

What will Oklahoma do with its new-found criminals? Well, the US – with the highest per-capita incarceration rate among the G20 – is no stranger to using the Big House to solve small problems. Still, of our 50 states, Oklahoma stands out as an “overachiever” among peers. Its overall incarceration rate is well beyond the US average, and as states go, OK’s state-level imprisonment rate is second only to Louisiana’s.

Although not referenced in Oklahoma’s 2021 economic report, the economy built around a response to criminality sounds like a not-insignificant part of Oklahoma’s business model. And it includes inmates working for pretty much nothing. The state notes that inmates can participate in work programs, and those with special skills and good behavior can earn more than others, with salaries as high as $20 per month. That’s not my typo. Twenty U.S. dollars a month.

A 2022 research report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights Clinic notes that the imprisoned work for literally pennies an hour, and are not subject to the same legal protections as employees outside the prison system.

“From the moment they enter the prison gates, they lose the right to refuse to work. This is because the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which generally protects against slavery and involuntary servitude, explicitly excludes from its reach those held in confinement due to a criminal conviction.”

“Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers,” ACLU and University of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Research Report, 2022.

According to data presented in the Captive Labor report, Oklahoma is one of only a handful of states where the per-hour wage for the incarcerated tops out at $0.60. But considering king-of-the-Castle Louisiana’s high-mark is $0.40, some might say there’s gravy in there. Just sayin’.

Oklahoma offers that prison employment is for public works only. Some privatized facilities, though, have engaged in contracts providing inmate labor to private industry. Cases of inmates working for private industry began surfacing in 2020. The employed inmates made way more than $0.60 per hour…but not until the correctional facility took 80% off the top. So despite companies paying more than $7 per hour, inmates received less than $1.50 an hour for their work. I’m not sure what you can do with that amount of money.

Many of these issues are so complex. It’s hard to know whether we have the insight and information necessary to speak knowledgeably or to advocate toward the right direction. Still, when I see people celebrating the introduction of new criminalizations, I can’t help but feel that we should figure out how to address the problems we’re already failing to correct, without elevating others to the same status.

A 45,000 person problem.

How is it that we have a country-wide Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21, and we have a federal minimum age for sale of tobacco (Tobacco 21), but we don’t have anything analogous for purchasing guns?

Tobacco 21 doesn’t even have an exemption for military veterans age 18-20. You just can’t buy tobacco if you’re not 21. If we don’t consider 18 an advanced-enough age at which to buy your own liquor or tobacco, I’m stumped as to why we think 18 should be acceptable as a threshold for purchasing firearms, or why implementing an advanced age should be left to individual states.

Doesn’t the fact that we put alcohol, tobacco, and firearms under the same government agency tip the hand that similar treatment seems appropriate?

The ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) also regulates fireworks, but states and even municipalities seem to do a better job of restricting fireworks sales than they do of slowing inappropriate gun sales.

Many jurisdictions make a distinction between consumer or ground-level fireworks like sparklers, and display fireworks like the kind you gather to watch a professional set off. Anyone who’s travelled I-95 on the east coast passing by Pedro’s South of the Border knows that it’s easy enough to get around state-by-state restrictions if you’ve got wheels and enough gas. But at least there’s an attempt to put some reasonable guardrails up, resulting in fewer injuries and fatalities.

In Delaware, ground level fireworks like sparklers are legal for purchase only to those over 18 years of age and only between June 4 to July 4, and between December 1 to January 1, seasons where they’re typically used with innocent intentions. Many other types of fireworks can’t be sold at all, period. Its State Fire Marshall’s website offers, “Please leave fireworks in the hands of professionals”.

Could we expect that in the same jurisdiction they would restrict the purchase of firearms to hunting season? And instead of restricting only the purchase of semi-automatic or AR rifles to those over 21, could we expect it to restrict the sale of those types of products to general consumers entirely, as they do with bottle rockets and Roman candles? Nope.

But why not? I can’t find the answer in the statistics.

According to the American Safety and Health Institute, in 2019, an estimated 10,000 people went to emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries. With that for context, consider that Pew Research Center found that the number of gun-related deaths – deaths – the following year was over 45,000. Of all murders in the U.S. in 2020, 79% involved a gun. Just over half of all suicides – over 24,000 – involved a gun.

Some will say that cars kill a lot of people, and that you don’t see anyone interfering in the purchase of those. True. But of the gun-related deaths in 2020, accidental deaths by firearm accounted for about 3% of those 45,000. The rest are deaths where guns were being used intentionally for murder and suicide. Unlike cars which are being used for transportation sometimes resulting in accidental deaths, guns are being used as killing machines.

To be transparent, I have generally found myself in the middle of the road when it comes to gun control. My godfather and grandfather were avid hunters, and I grew up believing responsible use, care, and storage of firearms didn’t pose a threat. I personally enjoyed shooting at gun ranges for a time as an adult in my 30s, and owned a gun when I did. Most of my concern was with assault weapons or semi-automatic rifles. But could my comfort with the accessibility of more mainstream weapons be undue?

Shouldn’t we expect restrictions to mirror the understanding of adult-decision-making capabilities demonstrated in those of alcohol and tobacco? I recognize that prohibiting the use of guns until the age of 21 would reshape the military and law enforcement, and could have other repercussions. So I would not necessarily expect to see that extensive a prohibition. But for those who have no demonstrable job-related need of a firearm, why would we not restrict purchasing power similarly to alcohol and tobacco?

In reading this post, and hearing me asking “why”, and “why not”, you may have been fuming, “It’s the gun lobby, idiot!”, or “It’s the NRA, you ignorant, uninformed [insert your favorite expletive]!” Well, I’m none of those things.

I think we’re still in this boat in these rough waters because we’ve allowed special interests to take the helm, and because many leaders lack the confidence and spines to make the trip without support of those special interests. And sure, Citizens United v. FEC didn’t do us any favors. But I think it’s helpful to ask whether we could get to any answers that made sense without seeing it through that lens.

I don’t think we can.

Take a look at Pew’s research in “What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S.” to understand just how badly we’re failing Americans by refusing to implement common sense measures that could save lives. These past weeks of May 2022 brought unspeakable heartbreak. We can’t think on it for long without wiping our eyes, grabbing for tissues, holding loved ones a little longer. And still, looking at the research suggests that the problem is even bigger.

It’s bigger than the stomach-turning mass shootings of defenseless children. It’s bigger than the people we have lost to heinous hate crimes. It’s not about whether people are acting in concert or as lone wolves.

The problem in 2020 was 45,000 people big. And for each of those 45,000 individuals, there were more who mourned their loss, and many who forever lost pieces of themselves alongside the obvious victims. Each year, the problem presented by easy access to guns unfolds all year long, not just when it’s big enough for the news to pick it up.

It’s a man-made problem, not a divine one. Let’s stop suggesting that thoughts and prayers alone are going to fix this.

Happy Heavenly Birthday, Tyler.

Tonight we are gathering at DC Prime, a restaurant in Ashburn, Virginia, on what would have been the 21st birthday of Tyler Joe Young. Having lost his life to a tragic fentanyl overdose at 19, Tyler could be one of the many smiling faces in People Magazine’s recent Special Report “Deadly Drugs in the US: Faces of the Fentanyl Epidemic”. Except there’s simply not enough room on its pages for so many we now celebrate in absentia.

On April 6, 2022, the DEA issued a letter expanding its 2021 public safety alert, disclosing that fentanyl continues to be seized at record rates. Its 2021 haul included “15,000 pounds of fentanyl […] which is enough to kill every American”. Pause and read that sentence again. “Enough to kill every American.”

Overdoses can result from an amount the size of the head of a pin, and traffickers leverage its highly addictive qualities by incorporating it into everything from fake prescription pills to the spectrum of street drugs. Tyler simply took a pill that looked like Xanax and went to sleep in his bed at home. He never woke up.

My in-person time with Tyler was brief, but I felt I knew him far better. I experienced him over the years through loving stories from his mother, my colleague and friend. He was brilliant, creative, funny, and kind. And in the midst of living his extraordinary life, he sometimes battled addiction in an effort to quiet his extremely active mind.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog, please click the link below to learn more about Tyler and to make a donation to a memorial fund at the Inova Keller Center in honor of Tyler. The fund supports mental health and substance use disorder treatment programs for children and adolescents.

Please Donate at: https://us-p2p.e-activist.com/3084/give-p2p/117929/julie-and-jeff-hines-fundraiser-in-honor-of-our-son-tyler

If you’d like to see Tyler in action, check out his tongue-in-cheek You Tube video where he spoofs a social influencer reviewing a Waterpik. Or his “Food Review” of Skittles, which clearly takes place in his bathroom, as he delivers the dead-pan line, “I’m in my kitchen now”.

Tyler’s departure was unplanned, and he left us wanting more of him. Let’s work toward reducing the number of others that do the same.

Mantle

Wild French Camargue horses splash into their white reflections. The sun is setting, the sky and sea turn pink, coral, orange. What will it be like? How does the sea smell, how loud the thundering hoofs? I’m sure that it will be breathtaking. I say, “it will be,” because I intend to see it in person.

William Ireland’s Camargue found a place above my mantle this week, and these horses greet me as I reflect at the end of a long day. Their promise affects me already. I’m inspired to plan the trip slowly but surely. Perhaps a Photosafari from Marseille. Maybe a side trip from a tour of ancient ruins in Provence. The more time I spend with these horses, the more I want to be in motion.

I clear the mantle just below Camargue. Yes, I’m one of those people. I change mantle decor, preferring variety over perfection. After hanging the work and putting only a couple of items back, something is missing, but I am convinced it’s something I don’t already have. Candlesticks, maybe crystal or light wood, but somehow different than what had been there before. A search for worthy accessories begins.

This isn’t my first rodeo. I’m into antiques, and unique pieces, and I’m often luckier online than I would be hoofing it through the local mall. I head on over to my standbys: Chairish, 1st Dibs, Ruby Lane, and Etsy.

Hour one rolls into hour two. I begin to believe the chances of finding a match are stacked in the house’s favor. So many options to go through, even with the best filters. I filter items to my price range, but periodically find something gorgeous only to see its price expressed in thousands.

I scroll on with that sense that the winning item might be just ahead. Random Reward. My mouth is dry from holding my breath in anticipation. Shouldn’t there be a cocktail server coming by to take a drink order? The three-across and five-across image displays on these sites even resemble the one-armed bandits of Vegas and Atlantic City.

I watch images I’ve already come across popping up a second and third time, blended back into the results. Considering how efficient I am at scrolling, these could qualify as subliminal messages. “I’ll take an icy cold coke and those Val St Lambert crystal candlesticks, please. I don’t know why, I just really feel I need them!”

I’d like to say I wrap it up on my own, but I run that iPad until the battery dies. The next day, standing in front of the Camargue, inspired by their motion, I decide to get off my tail and trot to some local stores. In store three, I find candles poured with a spiraling pattern. I hadn’t set out for that. Still, the sense of upward motion seems more interesting than the solid tapers. Minutes later, they are mine.

Now we were getting somewhere. Emboldened, I head further west to a mall where I hope to find many stores offering home furnishings. Maybe some mainstream candlesticks will do, now that the candles are unique.

When I arrive, though, I am greeted with a venue much diminished. I realize with sadness how long it’s been since I ventured here. I’ve been to malls east of me which are closer to the DC metro area, but not west, deeper into suburbia. Of the pre-pandemic five department-store anchor tenants, all that remains is a Macy’s without any home furnishings or crystal to speak of, and a JC Penney. No Pottery Barns, Crate & Barrels, Ballard Designs, or other home decor stores. Many storefronts are empty. Even some of the escalators aren’t running.

The lack of stores and inventory make hours of online candlestick roulette seem like a dream shopping excursion. I decide the only upside is that I’m actually getting exercise finding nothing, instead of sitting in a chair finding nothing. Eventually, I drown my sorrows in a cup of cinnamon sugar Auntie Anne’s pretzels that I would strap on like a feedbag if I could. I take my spiral candles and make my way home.

Back at the ranch, I stand before the horses, holding my spiral prizes up to see whether I can claim anything from the day. I’m struck by how well they work together. These horses, or at least the painting of them, has a sense of movement and action. It’s one of the things I love about this piece. The candles’ ever-upward spirals move with the horses. There is no weighing down here.

My body and my mind are also in motion thanks to the miles I’ve walked over hours. I reach for a set of my own antique rosewood candlesticks, where dark carved dragons wind their way from bottom to top. The spiral candles slip into the bases, a perfect fit. It’s not at all what I imagined at my sedentary beginning. It’s much better.

When is “evidence” evidence enough?

My trust of cashiers and servers is no lower now than in 2021. This point surfaced for me after hearing Rich Roll suggest we note that our everyday interactions likely don’t reflect the level of contention seen in the media and social media. It’s an interesting observation.

Charting trust for over two decades, The Edelman Trust Barometer indicated year over year downward trends in trust across the board in 2022 – media, government, business leaders, and multinational organizations. Institutional distrust may be undeniable, yet I’m not skeptical of the intentions of individuals I encounter in business or in daily transactions regardless which organizations they represent. If anything, I’m likely to give people the benefit of the doubt, feeling as if we’re all trying to do our best in these challenging times.

Still, the call for “evidence” seems to be on the rise. Evidence of what’s behind charts. Evidence of what was removed from social media. Evidence that evidence exists or doesn’t exist. It begs the question of who would be qualified to review the evidence, and what you’d have to do to get reliable evidence.

A recent check-engine light on my dashboard prompted me to consider how I choose trust, trust-but-verify, or outright distrust, and the role evidence may play along the way. The way I saw it, there were two possible responses:

  • Option A: the check engine light is a reliable indicator of a problem; I better get this checked out, or
  • Option B: the car manufacturer applied a variable algorithm triggering engine lights in hopes of getting parts-related income; the company believes that unethical mechanics, in an attempt to get labor fees, will purchase OEM parts to fix even non-existent issues; my work here is done.

Call me naive, but I choose Option A. I bring it to our local service station for a $150 assessment. Imagine the service manager says, “Ms. Vitalie, there are fairies that run on a treadmill just above the engine. Their shoes are wearing out, and we’re going to need to replace those shoes. Also, it’s winter, so we suggest you let the car warm up more before you start driving. You need to give their little legs a chance to get going before you get to those high speeds.” At that point I would say, “Frank, pop the hood. This I gotta see.”

Instead, Frank recommends $1,000 of corrective work to fix both the engine light issue and a squealing belt I’ve noticed. Should I ask for evidence? I think not. I know very little about how my car works. I do not ask that they bring me into the bay to show me that the valve is in fact stuck in the open position, or that the tensioner assembly isn’t running optimally.

I generally trust the service station. Trust in this context includes both believing they give me honest estimates, and a believe in their competency and ability to execute repairs. Still, the service station has already performed $2,000 in repairs in the past two months. I go home to think about it. As if on queue, the car’s remote start also stops working. Now I have a new diagnostic issue, and it relates to something that the dealer is probably best positioned to address.

At the dealership a week later, I fork over another $150 diagnostic fee. It confirms the original diagnosis from the service station, and I learn that the remote start simply doesn’t work when there’s a check engine warning. Seeking similar information independently from a different source was really the only evidence that was helpful. But it cost me a lot of time, effort, and hard dollars to get this evidence.

The service manager tells me there is also some additional work recommended. He says my coolant is dirty and should be flushed, and my spark plugs aren’t firing quite as they should. Alarms begin to sound as they do when additional unexpected recommendations arise. A soft whisper at the back of my head urges, “Don’t. Don’t.” I ignore them. Why? I seem to be in a trusting mood given they did not exploit my suspected remote start issue. I give the green light for the repairs.

I’m feeling pretty good, thanks to my high supply of trust. The repairs progress quickly. As I prepare to leave, I hear an interesting exchange between the dealership’s service manager and another customer.

The service manager explains to the man that his tire is beyond repair. The car will need four new tires, which the service manager doesn’t even have in stock. Also, he notes for the customer, “You really need a coolant flush and new spark plugs.”

Really? What are the chances? Now that’s evidence I wish I’d had earlier. *sigh*.

Can banning be the best advertisement?

I spent some time this weekend considering banned books, the banning of books, the burning of books, and censorship generally. Good times.

I wondered to what extent banning requests were being exploited as another political or ideological tool. To find out, I headed to the American Libraries Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (online, of course), which tracks and publishes challenges and ban requests. I needn’t have spent so much time there, though. Later in the day, the New York Times published an article answering my questions. There is a range of efforts, campaigns to shape the shelves of U.S. libraries. They include efforts to criminalize the stocking of the shelves by librarians and others who choose works that go against conservative preferences.

A rapidly increasing body of efforts take aim at public school libraries on a platform of exercising parental rights over what children can or must read. In 2020, half of the challenges to public libraries generally were brought by parents. ALA’s OIF provides details as to the basis for some of the challenges of years past. After scrolling through a list of challenges to the top 100 American Novels, I wondered if I could support some of the requests that centered around age appropriateness in cases of required reading. I personally read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in my late twenties, and it was rough content. It was an amazing book, but I could see that I might want to be sure my child was ready before requiring that. It’s certainly a balancing act.

It seems, though, that the balancing act is going to get harder instead of easier. Thanks to publicity around book banning efforts, newly banned books are flying off shelves faster than hotcakes off a diner griddle on Sunday. The New York Post reported that after a Tennessee school board banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winner Maus last week, the 30-year old graphic novel series soared to the top of Amazon’s charts, breaking through the Best-selling Graphic Novels category into the Overall Best-Selling category. The book is not only back ordered due to demand, but an online fundraiser to purchase the books free for students generated over $80,000.

One of the most important books in my life was a frequent flier on the banned and challenged lists. By the time I read Go Ask Alice, it had already been banned by some middle schools and high schools. The 1971 book was purportedly the diary of a teenager who fell into drug addiction. It was raw and graphic. It endured years of challenges, appearing among the top 10 most challenged books in 2003. I read the book in 6th grade, at 11 years of age. What it did for me was to strip every bit of glamour off drug use.

By the time I finished that book, I understood drugs to be a bad trade – a trade where I would give up myself and my self control to awful people in exchange for fleeting experiences. That book single-handedly helped shape my perspective and life choices for the better. As a former two-and-a-half-pack-a-day smoker, I can tell you that I likely wouldn’t have been a dabbler in the drug world had I chosen to enter it. It probably saved my life. That’s the power of a book.

Those who try to ban books may meet with initial success. Still, they may just be advertising for the very books they hope to restrict. In the end, I believe they sow seeds that will become forbidden fruits of which many will take note and interest, and ultimately ingest. I say, “Let the feast begin!”

To beach or not to beach

Since my early twenties, I’ve dreamed of the looking down at the ocean waves through walls of glass in an ocean front condo; dreamed of turning to the door and heading down for a sandy walk and a salty swim. That I’m even entertaining the idea that beach living may not be my endgame intimates how much I and the world around me has changed in the past couple of years.

I had a clear picture of my future self sunning against the backdrop of shimmering waves and a warm breeze. I’d begun researching before the pandemic, and could envision great scoping vacations in resort areas across the country. I even considered a minor career adjustment that would have made all of it easier.

Fast forward to today, our pandemic limits travel, inflation floats beach properties higher each day, and my brush with cancer makes me wonder at times what lies ahead. I’ve started rethinking where I see myself in my future years, and how long I’m willing to wait to get there. In a few years I’ll have an empty nest. And if this pandemic EVER subsides, I’ll be able to begin vacationing again. But will I research areas near beaches as I’d planned? I’m not sure.

During my early research I bumped into a legitimate issue. As you know if you’ve read my earlier post about a writing contest, I’ve developed an aversion to dark water. And frankly part of it is predatory fish. Although I grew up near the beach and frequently swam in ocean and bay water with low visibility, I’ve developed some trepidation. Still, though, something more insidious crept in. It’s the changing value I place on the conveniences I have.

Post pandemic and post cancer treatment, I’ve come to value how connected my current location is to everything I could need. Paths and natural wooded areas allowed us to continue outside activities when indoor areas closed down. A nearby metropolitan area means access to all manner of deliveries and services. When searching for medical care I found exceptional doctors and facilities in my own back yard. They’re things I thought I didn’t need, and yet somehow they’ve become table stakes.

So were I bent on a beach relocation, I’d be looking for a place with crystal clear water, mild climates year round, recreational places and spaces to enjoy, city-style amenities reasonably close by, world class medical resources, close to a major airport and highways so I can easily stay connected to family and friends. Did I miss anything? And is there any chance this place exists?

This week, as I shopped in one of the four grocery stores a stone’s throw from my house, Coastal Living magazine with an island life feature caught my eye. It occurred to me that if I’m never going to be happy without clear water sans predatory fish, maybe I should just stop this seaside search and consider being happy with a pool.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but it was a practical thought, so I stood for a couple of minutes and let it settle in. Given that I was in an obvious crisis, I did what my fellow Americans do in times of crises: I bought stuff.

Don’t worry, it was nothing big. I purchased two magazines: Coastal Living and Traditional Home. I wanted to explore what resonated and what didn’t. During my first flip through Coastal Living, I found that some of the coasts were beautiful…if I also had a pool, because I wasn’t loving those brownish green waves. Needing a pool defeats some of the purpose of moving to the beach. Shifting to Traditional Home, there was some appeal to the thought that I wouldn’t have to swap out French country furnishings for conch shells, sand dollars and shiplap. Over the years I’ve lost my affinity for classic coastal decor. It’s fun for a vacation, but it wouldn’t be my every day choice.

Moving beyond the superficial is going to take a little more courage. It’s not so often we wrestle with letting go of something we’ve held on to for so many years. So I’ll take some deep breaths and I’ll flip through more pages. Because a lot has changed for all of us. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that any successful rebuilding can only be done by being honest with ourselves about what we need, what we want, what has passed, and what may yet lie ahead.

How comfortable can you get with a changing world order?

If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be reading a book on “Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order”, you would have heard a long and hardy laugh. And yet here I am today, listening to author Ray Dalio on Audible, hoping to gain a perspective that will make the contents of The Economist remotely digestible this week.

I rarely read magazines cover to cover, whether digital or hard copy. I find an article or two of interest, then move on. Not so today, as I wondered, would be wise to go full monty for a change? Well, it might be wise, but one look at the table of contents sent me running.

From The Economist’s Americas section, I could choose between articles on COVID, electoral administration, insurrection, “Mexico’s bad, mad energy plan”, or video games in Brazil. Oh, but the video games article was actually about video games expressing the political divide. Or I could turn to Asia, with offerings like, “Myanmar’s defectors”, “Omicron in India”, or “Unrest in Kazakhstan”.

Before you tell me to turn my attentions to Glamour if I want to read horoscopes and happy handbag stories, let me say that The Economist bills itself as including politics, science, business, culture, and the arts. It’s just that the rampant rise of bad news crowds all else from its pages.

When the pandemic first hit, I wished that I’d understood more about how previous generations had handled their own pandemics, and how their cultures, countries, and economies had evolved as a result. I reasoned this holy grail of knowledge could inspire some optimism in darker days. But I was distracted by the strain of living in our maddening world, and by my gratitude in being able to still experience beautiful moments in the face of our hardships.

Well, good news. Turns out Ray was doing a study of the rise and decline of empires at around the same time, and if I understand the press correctly, he incorporated the info I was wondering about into his new book. Unfortunately, the audible version is nearly 14 hours long. Fortunately, Ray’s intro says I can feel free to skip whatever sections I want. Woohoo!! Freedom!!

So I have embarked on this reading in the hope that insights into evolving world orders from a historical context will neutralize some of the anxieties that one can’t help but feel when faced with the barrage of bad news. I am cautiously optimistic. I mean, as optimistic as anyone can be about world order changing.

Is there anyone who hasn’t written a book (besides me)?

I feel like I can’t shake a stick and not hit someone who has just published a book. It begs the question, “Is there anyone out there – besides me – who hasn’t published a book?” And the obvious followup question arises: “Was it worth it?” And then the next: “Should I do it?”

When I began writing my blog, I wasn’t sure anyone would want to read it. As I continued to write post after post, I found some posts focused on the audience, and others were more about personal expression. Balancing the content so that there is enough of both allows me to continue to connect with an audience and express myself.

That’s not the case with a book. A book is all about the people who will read it. They will spend a healthy amount of time with it, so it shouldn’t disappoint. Orbit Media’s Annual Blogging Survey, now in its 8th year, shows average blog post length to be rising year over year. Still, the per post length for 2021 is estimated to be just over 1,400 words. Blog readers may give five minutes to a post. Masterclass estimates an average book is around 90,000 words depending on genre, or six hours if you did nothing but read cover to cover without a break.

Books also present the need to engage readers’ interests through or between disruptions, to inspire them to return often enough to read through to the end. While a blog post is short enough that it may not fight for attention once a reader begins, reader distraction for longer pieces is real. It’s been attributed to an increasing loss of “reading habit” prevalent in those raised in the digital age, the prevalence of multitasking, and even a fear of missing out. Universities and their faculty are exploring ways to support “engaged and active reading” and to promote a “reading culture” to offset the trend, which has a significant impact on learning.

One thing that many people who feel they have lost the ability to concentrate mention is that reading a book for pleasure no longer works for them. We have got so used to skim reading for fast access to information that the demand of a more sophisticated vocabulary, a complex plot structure or a novel’s length can be difficult to engage with.

“The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world”, Harriet Griffey, The Guardian, October 14, 2018.

With all of the challenges presented by longer pieces, it’s ironic that more new authors than ever appear to be emerging. It’s very difficult to get any reliable statistics on newly published first time authors, but the growth of indie publishing platforms in recent years seems to indicate a growth in authorship. Statista research into 12 independent publishers indicates a median growth rate of about 77% for indie publishers from 2018 to 2020, with some doubling and tripling their sales growth during that period. The pandemic and access to self-publishing platforms is thought to have increased indie-publishing in 2021, as well.

The answer to the question “Should I do it?” is simple for me: If I have something of value to share, then I should. But whether the road to writing and publishing the average book is worth it or not is something into which I have no personal insight. Written Word Media’s 2021 survey of indie published authors found that the median number of books per author was 10. At some point you would think that if it wasn’t worth it, authors would simply lose interest or momentum before reaching those numbers.

In terms of worth or return, it doesn’t appear to be about the money. Most authors don’t make a living on book publishing alone. And the road can be extremely long. Take Nancy McCabe, whose 2020 book Can This Marriage Be Saved: A Memoir was 30 years in the making. So what is it that sustains authors on the long journey from blank page to publication? Was it worth it, and why or why not?

If you’ve written a book, I’d love it if you’d share in the comments below whether you feel it was worth it, and why. It’s the story that statistics alone can’t tell.

Following our passions is getting easier.

“Cowboys and Indians” was the earliest game I remember playing in my neighborhood. I always wanted to be the ingenious Indigenous, powerful and stealthy from knowing the place, strong and tan from living off the land. I didn’t understand why most kids wanted to play the boring interloper cowboy, but it worked for me.

Behind the scenes, I didn’t just want to play the role, I wanted to be an American Indian. The way my four-year-old self saw it, there was only one thing keeping me from sleeping in a teepee and hunting game on horseback with my new peeps: golden blonde hair. I knew from every TV show I’d seen that there was no such thing as a blonde American Indian.

Nightly, I would pray to the Guy in the Sky to give me long, straight black hair. I pictured myself at the top of a clay mountain on horseback, the sun high overhead, waving goodbye to my family as I prepared to gallop away. A shirtless brave with equally awesome long black hair was on his own horse beside me. We set off for my new home, our matching hair waving majestically in the wind behind us, along with some feathers from our headbands.

As I grew older, I came to understand that I would not be fishing in cold, clear streams with my fellow tribesman and sleeping under buffalo skins. I never lost my soft spot for the Indigenous people, their culture and traditions, though. The more I learned, the more I believed I’d been on the right side of that childhood game. So in my 30s, when the consulting firm I worked for landed a contract essentially helping the attorneys for the “cowboys”, I was horrified. I decided to decline being staffed on the project, even if it meant giving up my job. Fortunately I wasn’t staffed on the engagement, so it never came to that.

A few years later, now at another consulting firm, I learned of a project working to reconstruct the records of Indigenous tribes in an effort to get their assets appropriately assigned. I was thrilled at the chance to right some past wrongs. Alas, the job involved a lot of on-site time at remote reservations and came with a hazmat suit, and I was pregnant. Contributing in that way would have meant a lot to me, but the time wasn’t right.

Over the course of my career I haven’t always felt passionate about the projects I undertake or refuse. I was reminded of these two engagements, though, when I read about an increase in employees making working decisions based on the values and social positions of their current or potential employers. The importance of Corporate Social Responsibility has been increasing in recent years, but the pandemic seems to have accelerated employees prioritizing it from their employers.

I wonder how it will shape assignments and engagement choices in the future. I suspect it would be much easier to decline an assignment that clashes with your values, without having to accompany it by a resignation. I feel comforted knowing that as businesses evolve there will be more of a place for our social conscience, and more opportunities for employees to do work that touches their hearts.

Can we stem the proliferation of misquotation?

Some quotes are so good that they inspire you to read more from the source. They beg the question of what other wisdom and pithy phrases envelope them. I experienced the wondering and the search recently with a quote attributed to Anäis Nin – supposedly one of her best quotes, in fact. Here’s how it went down…

…and then the day came

when the risk to remain tight,

in a bud,

became more painful

than the risk it took to blossom…

Anais Nin. Elizabeth Appell?

Before tossing a lightly used journal one morning, I flipped through and cut out a few special quotes. The one above was among them, listing Anäis Nin as author. Literally two hours later, I decided to begin re-reading Jen Sincero’s, You Are a Badass. By page 13, I stumbled upon Jen’s statement, “There’s a great line from the poet Anäis Nin that reads: ‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’”

The universe was clearly directing me to learn more about this work, so I embarked on what became hours of research trying to get to the bottom of exactly which Nin work featured this line. Turns out it’s none of them. My search yielded the sad surprise that it wasn’t demonstrably hers.

How could this be? Zazzle sells t-shirts, pillows, magnets and posters all attributing the quote to Nin. Goodreads and poetry sites attribute the quote to her, sometimes calling it a poem titled “Risk”. Poem analysis sites speculate on Nin’s intentions expressed in each line. It’s been referenced as hers in published works by other authors. I chuckled at the irony of seeing the quote in a blog post on the Nonfiction Authors Association site. And yes, I felt ashamed of myself after I did it. But really…how did we get here?

I headed to Sky Blue Press, which specializes in publishing and researching Nin’s works, and which operates the official Anäis Nin blog. A post noted in 2009 that the unevidenced credit was an unresolved mystery. Then in 2013, a woman came forward alleging she had written it in 1979, and offering proof of publication. At the time, she had only received credit as editor. Sky Blue Press agreed that Elizabeth Appell’s story makes for a compelling claim. Nin wrote much about risk and courage. Did anonymous voices of the internet simply choose her as the author of a phrase she never uttered?

Despite authoritative noting in 2009 that the quote didn’t appear to be Nin’s, there is no sign of its attribution slowing. I was at least heartened that a 2015 doctoral dissertation by Clara Oropeza – which included substantial discussion of risk as a topic in Nin’s writing – did not include any reference to the apparently non-existent poem “Risk”. Thank you, Clara, for being a light in this darkness!

The inability to reliably source or attribute quotes – especially the most inspiring – seems to have become commonplace. I expect it to become worse. After the “Nin” incident (as I call it), I began researching authors’ quotes before using them, and citing their specific source. I feel better doing the heavy lifting to get to accuracy, even if it means speaking with university archives research librarians or the credited authors themselves.

Unfortunately for me, I drew the line at folk wisdom. I didn’t feel the need to nail down centuries old common sayings. Then, as if the hand of fate needed once again to drive me forward, someone commented on my blog post mentioning their favorite line from my post. The sentence was a derivative of a phrase I believed to be common folk wisdom. I began to write that I couldn’t fully take credit since I’d heard its sentiment before, passed on to me by someone who’d heard it from another. But the wondering started…what was the origin, anyway?

I entered it in Google Search and was immediately met with pillows and mugs showing the original quote along with an author’s name. “Fool me once, Zazzle!”, I thought. But as I continued to research I became convinced that it wasn’t folk wisdom, but someone’s actual quote. I reached to the author credited, and confirmed it was, in fact, hers. The author was gracious and provided me with a preferred reference to a source. I updated the post to include her actual quote and source.

Inadvertently failing to give credit where it may be due is not a new phenomenon. Isaac Newton is credited with publishing the phrase, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” although it’s been identified as a possible derivative of statements by two others many centuries before.

Still, giving credit where none is due seems to be a different sort of issue. Especially given that it can overshadow an author’s real brain children. My heart was heavy when I thought that despite many other great quotes, Anäis was being remembered for and reintroduced by one that wasn’t her own.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

Anäis Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944, June 1941 entry

Nin did produce inspirational quotes. One that has stuck with me over the years seems especially important now. “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage”. We should all have the courage to question, and to search, and to find our truths. Sometimes it’s best to dig deep even if it’s easier to cut and paste.

Judging Books by Covers

Ragdoll cats are known for their sweet, docile personality. Our vet describes our Ragdoll as “spirited”, despite her pedigree. A note for technicians on her file warns to take care, as she “will lunge at face”. She appears sweet and can be cuddly, but when miffed, she packs a punch.

Conversely, our dog, despite claiming lineage from several restricted breeds, has been known as the friendliest dog on the block. There is one hound in our neighborhood that he barks at ferociously. Hackles up and pulling like a freight train, he looks and sounds as if he’s about to eat her for lunch. It’s very stressful for us and the other owners. Once he caught me unaware and literally dragged me across pavement to get to her. I looked up from the ground horrified, expecting to see a blood bath, and confused by the quiet. He was licking her with his tail wagging a mile a minute. We didn’t know what he was when we adopted him at 7 weeks, but now we know he’s 80 pounds of love.

The rescue group said Cooper was a shepherd mix, but his adoption paperwork pronounced him a lab/boxer/hound mix. Two veterinarians thought he looked to have Great Dane in him. We weren’t sure what he was, but we knew it was awesome. He learned sit and down commands immediately. He would fetch through obstacles – including a beagle twice his size – and protect the ball until he could return it to me. He was handsome, sweet, and the most social dog we’d ever met. He loved people and pets equally. When we brought him to puppy day camp for evaluations, we were told he was exceptionally well socialized. He grew cuter each day. Cuter and bigger.

To get more insight for future health choices, our vet recommended a doggy DNA kit. The results were surprising. My super-retriever was, in fact, not a lab. My Dane-y looking pup had no Great Dane, either. He was 37.5% American Staffordshire Terrier, 25% German Shepherd, 12.5% Boxer, 12.5% Chow Chow, and 12.5% mixed breeds. The American Staffordshire Terrier is a “bully breed”, like a pit bull, known to be either a viscious toddler mauler or a great family pet like Spanky’s childhood companion, depending upon which side of the controversy you lean. German Shepherds and Chow Chows are also considered restricted breeds.

I was surprised, but unphased. As a child I heard my dad talk about his childhood bull terrier on rare occasions. You could hear he was choked up on the inside, even into his 40’s when he spoke of this dog, who he said was the best dog ever. She had run into the road to push him out of the way of an oncoming car. He was saved. She was not. I learned that people that train pit bulls to be bloodthirsty killers were a problem. Pits and bull terrier breeds in their entirety were not.

Cooper spent two to three days each week at a wonderful dog day care in his early life. He was well-played and well-loved. Occasionally on a weekend, I’d bring him to a near-by dog park, but sometimes it wasn’t a great experience. On one particularly grueling dog park visit, two aggressive dogs had been seeking Cooper out and nipping, and their owners couldn’t have cared less. Looking for a safer space for him, we drove directly to a nearby PetSmart to find out whether that might be a fit for a few hours of playtime at their Doggy Day Camp.

The woman at the front came around the desk, looked at him for about 3 seconds, and rejected us. She said she definitely saw pit in him, and if a bully breed is dominant, they couldn’t have him playing with other dogs. I looked down at the love bug next to me and couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

For a long time I didn’t return to PetSmart. I was so offended at the idea that a corporate policy would literally reject customers based on the way they looked. It felt too close to the offensive biases that keep people from having equal opportunities, equal access, social justice and social equity, and more. I still don’t like it as a policy.

“Furthermore, for the safety of all animals and associates, we cannot accept dogs of the “bully breed” classification or wolves/wolf hybrids including American Pit Bull Terriers, Miniature Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Bull Dogs, Bull Terriers or mixed breeds that have the appearance or characteristics of one of these breeds.”

PetSmart Doggy Day Camp policy, https://services.petsmart.com/content/daycamp-requirements?origin=DDCPage&type=DDCRequirements&desc=LearnMore

I recently came into some information that helped me understand what may have shaped that PetSmart’s poor policy. “Restricted Breeds” are a term used to describe breeds of dogs (or mixes with quantities of a particular breed) that are considered high risk in terms of liability. In fact, if you own a dog with a fair amount of restricted breeds, your homeowner’s and umbrella policies probably don’t cover you in any way for events involving these dogs. The same holds true for dogs who have a bite history.

Policies that do cover liability related to these dogs generally appear to be offered as standalone policies, or reinsurance offerings that are tough to access, expensive to maintain, and fraught with potential fraud. Coverage options do exist, as some states require proof of coverage, for example, in order to avoid euthanizing your pet after a bite incident. But there are stories of insurance representatives taking policy funds and not actually insuring the dogs or paying out when an incident does occur. Yet according to one insurer’s site, the average claim for a dog bite is around $30k, so going without the coverage is a risk for anyone.

I could understand that, from a business perspective, it would be desirable to limit exposures involving restricted breeds. Still, I don’t respect PetSmart’s “looks like” method, where an employee could simply look at my dog and determine whether they are restricted. I have been at reputable, successful dog daycares that have different but effective methods for determining whether a dog could play safely, or potentially getting them there if they’re not. Here are some examples of alternative vetting options:

  • Introductions to your dog with staff, then with other dogs of different sizes and temperaments to ensure they are able to play safely with others and are a good candidate for interactive play. Not all dogs are good candidates. In that case, a rejection is fair and appropriate.
  • Employing and appropriately staffing play spaces with dedicated and knowledgeable staff who monitor dog activity and know how to spot potential issues and react.
  • Requesting proof of breed makeup from the owner, such as dog DNA results.
  • Offering a series of training sessions for your dog prior to becoming a candidate for playing with others; this makes them more comfortable and confident, and social play can be introduced gradually. While more expensive, this is an option for some.

Why do I feel so sure that the “looks like” method should be ditched? Well, I recently worked on getting insurance coverage for my restricted breed dog for my own sanity. For each potential insurer, I had to answer reasonable questions about my dog, as expected. Oddly, no one in the insurance industry has asked me to send a picture of my dog so they could make a premium assessment just by judging the book by the cover. Go figure.

Note: The featured photo of me and Cooper is by Matt Mendelsohn. It was taken outside, and no – there were no fans blowing! Matt is just magical at capturing moments. You can read more about him and see examples of his amazing work at his site, https://www.mattmendelsohn.com.

Jeff Bezos: Dud or Demigod?

Earlier this year, I stood in front of the Whole Foods bakery section contemplating which of several yummy whole grain seeded rolls to get. A man who was striking even with his pandemic mask had walked in behind me a few minutes before as I entered the store. I realized he was again behind me at the bakery when I heard him saying, “You’re super-cute”. It was not something you normally hear at the grocery store, and he followed it up by asking if I was married. I later laughed about it with a friend saying that if I’d been interested in finding a guy during a pandemic, even that Jeff Bezos could have arranged for me.

There’s no shortage of unsavories that come up in Bezos-related conversations. He’s been credited with perpetuating climate change, disrupting small businesses, destroying book stores, departments stores, and retail sales as we knew them. He’s been accused of running sweat shops, chilling whistleblowing, illegal union-busting, and more. I abhor all of those things. I literally work to prevent that sort of business conduct and the harm it does. And I don’t know which of the integrity-related accusations will prove true, which I find especially troubling.

Still, the companies and services Bezos founded, nurtured, and empowered have undeniably improved my life over the years. As Quartz put it, his legacy is “complicated”. But here’s what I think of when I see his name.

  • When my mom was sick and the pandemic prevented me from driving across several states to shop for her, I could order food, supplies, and comforts from Amazon. I ordered supplies for my home, too. No one else could get them there.
  • In a year when I had two kids still in diapers, I ordered nearly every Christmas gift for family and friends from Amazon as they slept, at all hours of the day and night. And I was happy with the selections. For a new mom, that was a big deal.
  • Zappos saved me from repeated trips to and from shoe stores with two disinterested little boys who would say anything fit just to go watch SpongeBob or hit Build-A-Bear. Let’s not minimize how much those saved hours matter when you’re working full time and trying to be a good parent.
  • The Washington Post kept me from losing my sanity many times, especially in recent years. Enough said on that.
  • Audible helps me get through books when I otherwise couldn’t, like when I’m walking the dog, getting exercise, or just don’t want to look at more words on pages or screens. Bringing books in a high-quality audible form at scale has made books accessible to many people who wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise experience them.
  • Alexa turns on my lights, helps me turn them off when I’ve forgotten, and serves up my shopping list while I’m at the grocery store. She even includes the items my sons add, like, “New brother” and “Every chocolate toaster strudel on the shelf”. So I get some good laughs in, as well.
  • Earlier this summer, as the DC-MD-VA area experienced its “rash” of mite bites following our summer of cicadas, used Cortisone-10 that Amazon delivered to my door in less than 24 hours. I had visited three pharmacies for ANY anti-itch or rash treatment. The shelves looked like the toilet paper shelves in March 2020. I got back in my car after pharmacy three and ordered it from my phone, there in the parking lot.

Given my gratitude for all Bezos’s companies have done for me over the years, I was dismayed by a recent email from Washingtonian with the subject, “Bye Bezos”. It was actually an advertisement from their ad partner, The Rounds, offering to keep my home stocked in a way that was “basically nothing like Amazon”. And they were right – it was nothing like Amazon. Curious, I went onto the site and clicked on a picture of a water bottle only to see that the description said it came in cans. Compass coffee was offered in small-sized containers leading to more than twice as many trips for the same volume I would get in one order on Amazon. Same with detergents and fabric softeners, which they offered in 3-pod packages. (That’s not a typo. Three pods.)

Their compelling feature – reusable packaging and the picking up of used packaging from me – sounded responsible. But I wondered how allowing them to transport my used packaging back to their site to recycle saved anything over me walking it to the curb for my own weekly recycle service, or just reusing it myself. Given all that, slams at Bezos and Amazon seemed cheap and ill-directed. I wondered who thought mud-slinging would be the most effective marketing strategy for the altruistic, sustainability-concerned crowd.

If I were writing a classic play, I wouldn’t suggest Bezos was a god. He definitely has feet of clay. But his beyond-mere-mortals track record of turning remotely-plausible visions into my everyday reality puts him close to demigod territory. I’m interested in watching what else he might do now that he’s stepped away from his CEO role. And I’m not quite ready to say, “Bye,” just yet.

A mother and daughter laugh and enjoy each other in a tent made of sheets and twinkle lights

I want to support choice, but I love too much.

There was an underlying narrative in the first wave of the pandemic that the people hit hardest were those who had lived their lives as they wanted and made their own choices. Many victims were elderly. The narrative was that no one wanted to see them in pain or worse, but at least they’d led a long life and many were close to an end. Those who weren’t elderly often had co-morbidities. In some cases, the narrative went, these were brought on by choices to eat rich foods, not exercise, smoke, or otherwise enjoy the good life.

This wasn’t truly accurate, but it was a convenient sentiment that balanced support of personal choices, including the choice to remain unvaccinated. After all, weren’t they making what they believed to be a healthier choice for the long-term, based on their low-risk profile, or concern of complications from a less-than-ideally-tested vaccine? Shouldn’t everyone have the right to make that choice?

Now that Delta has arrived, that narrative is gone. In some states, over 99% of people over 64 years old are vaccinated, and those individuals aren’t dying. Children are getting sicker and dying. Some hospitals are stretched from helping adults who could have vaccinated but chose not to do it. Some hospitals are unable to continue giving non-COVID-related care to those who need it. Required – not elective – surgeries are being cancelled. There’s just not enough beds, rooms, or medical staff to accommodate everyone.

There are many people who don’t have a choice as to whether or not to vaccinate, including those with uncontrolled or unstable infections, and children. Children haven’t had a “long, rich” life. They did not make choices that increase their proclivity to contract or suffer from this illness.

To those who still choose not to vaccinate, I suggest thinking back to your child’s, godchild’s, niece’s, or nephew’s first grade school picture. See those big doe eyes and the little teeth in that smile. Someone who looks like that, and talks like that – who thinks like that and feels like that – is dying. They may be doing it amid a sea of strangers in a hospital hallway, without the comfort of even holding their mother’s hand, because hospital beds are filled with people who made a personal health choice.

This isn’t a personal health choice anymore. It’s a community health crisis. And it’s time to start caring beyond our own health profile. I wouldn’t support a friend who habitually drove drunk because they felt it was their right to take a chance that they’d get home safely or because they didn’t trust the Uber drivers. I wouldn’t do it because their actions put so many other innocent lives at risk. I would love them, but I wouldn’t support that choice. So now, at the risk of evoking the crackly voice of Sally Struthers talking about the price of a cup of coffee, I’ve got to say I feel it’s time to save the children. Get vaccinated.