November 14, 2011

The height of Western Civilization: Economic chaos, climate disaster, pedophilia & drones?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Jane Stillwater @ 2:55 pm

Remember all the wonders of ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and ancient Rome, those amazing cradles of Western Civilization? Remember Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Newton, Copernicus and Einstein — fathers of modern science, culture and art? Do the names Thomas Jefferson, Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King Jr ring a bell — men who gave birth to our modern ideals regarding justice?

And what about Western Civilization’s many miraculous offspring — such as life-saving medicine, outstanding universities, electricity, the telephone, moving pictures, human beings landing on the moon, the airplane and central heating?

While babysitting my three-year-old granddaughter Mena the other day, I was suddenly overwhelmed by her wonderfulness. “I’m thinking that what you have produced here is probably the height of Western Civilization!” I exclaimed to my son Joe when he came to pick her up later. “Mena is smart, kind, positive, curious and creative. She’s perfect.”

And then I looked over at my son, who is the prime example of a perfect loving and caring father. “Oh hell, Joe, you are the height of Western Civilization too!”

I’m so proud to be a member of a society that can produce such outstanding, high-quality youth as these ones.

Sadly, however, what Western Civilization is really going to be the most remembered for among future historians — if there will be any left, that is — is going to be climate disaster, planet-wide radioactivity, an economic crisis of epic proportion, greedy and grubby leadership, grand-scale human subjugation, pedophilia and pornography, waterboarding, voting-machine fraud and the bloody and anonymous disfigurement and death of hundreds of thousands of innocent women and children by monstrous drones, gristly cluster bombs and nightmare-quality uranium-enhanced weaponry that maim and kill indiscriminately.

Is it too late to change?

PS: When my daughter Ashley was in first grade back in 1994, I wrote a book that her class could read in preparation for their big spring camping trip up to Tilden Park. The moral of its story was that people learn by doing — and that we are NOT stuck in our set ways forever but truly are able to change. (And also, perhaps, that if civilization as we know it is destroyed by our greedy and inept leaders, there’s still a slim chance that we might still be able to survive by living off the land?) Anyway, here’s my tale (illustrations are included below, free of charge):

Ms. Brown’s First Grade Class and the Great Outdoors

Let’s explore some of the facts we might know and the feelings we might have about city life. Let’s then compare them with the facts we might know and the feelings we might have about the Great Outdoors.

Here’s a fact: All the first graders in Ms. Brown’s class know pretty much everything they need to know regarding the rules of city life. You all know how to flush a toilet, buckle a seat belt, brush your teeth, turn on a television, get dressed, get on and off a school bus, bicycle to the corner and turn on and off the kitchen light.

You know how to make a bowl of cereal. You know how to answer the telephone, how to open the door and how to eat your vegetables. You know when bedtime is. You know when to get up. You know where to put your boots away. You know where to find the ice cream section when you go to the grocery store.

You know who to tell when you see a bad guy. You know who to ask for help with your homework. You know what to do when you are at school. You know what to do when you are at home.

You know a lot about city life.

But what about feelings? Most of you feel at home in the city. Most of you feel pretty familiar and comfortable with the rules and ways of city life. Right? Right.

Here’s a fact: There are no televisions, cars, lights, telephones, toilets, refrigerators, houses, bicycles, schools, streets or video games in the Great Outdoors. They don’t even have Barney!

Life in the Great Outdoors is very different from life in the city.

There are a lot of fun things to do in the Great Outdoors, but they are fun in a different way than the fun things you find in a city. There is dirt in the Great Outdoors. Lots and lots of dirt. There are trees. There are creeks and rivers. There are bushes, plants and grass. There is lots and lots of fresh air.

There are almost no people. There is lots of room to run around in. There is a lot of silence and a lot of interesting sounds. There are animals and birds in the Great Outdoors. And the Great Outdoors has a whole new set of rules that are completely different from the rules of city life.

But what about feelings? You might not feel familiar with this new set of rules. You might wonder how you are going to learn all the new rules of the Great Outdoors. You might feel doubtful. You might feel scared. You might feel curious. You might even feel EXCITED by the chance to learn about a new way to survive successfully in a whole new place, to go to and beat a whole new level in the game of life!

Here’s a fact: If you spend time learning about the Great Outdoors, you can learn a lot.

But what about feelings? Even if you only spend an hour or two a week learning about the Great Outdoors, sooner than you think you can learn enough to feel comfortable there — to feel as much at home in the Great Outdoors as you do in the city.

(This book is dedicated to the memory of Ms. Denise Brown, teacher extraordinaire, the best teacher ev-ah)


November 7, 2010

Tips from famous crime writers: Solving the mysteries of writing & righting

I love reading murder mysteries because they are like puzzles to be solved — and because, in these books, there are always wrongs to be righted and Justice to be served. And the constant efforts of murder-mystery heroes to identify and capture the bad guys fit right in with my own life-long passion for Justice, especially in politics. Who dun it? “Karl Rove!”

When I attended BoucherCon, a convention of mystery writers and mystery readers held in San Francisco recently, one facet of the conference that I really liked was when several famous murder-mystery authors spoke to us groundlings about how they went about writing their books. Here’s what I learned from the following authors:

EDDIE MULLER, San Francisco’s current Czar of Noir: “I wrote about 1940s San Francisco because I wanted to recapture a place that no longer exists. It was my father’s town and I wanted to live his life vicariously — World War II, Dashell Hammett, the Barbary Coast. My father was actually born in Golden Gate Park after the 1906 earthquake. This was a whole part of San Francisco that I never got to experience myself but only heard stories about.” And so he wanted to write some of those stories down before they got lost forever — that was his motivation to write. (My powerful original motivation for starting to write was that I was completely pissed off at George W. Bush for stealing the 2000 election. Now there is one who-dun-it that no one seems to want to solve.)

“My job is to make sure that the things of the past don’t disappear. I write in order to preserve this past for future generations. I write for five-year-olds. And, in addition, if you can possibly do as an adult the things that you loved to do as a six-year-old, you’ll be fine. And my best subject in elementary school was Show and Tell. You have to find something that you really want to write about. You become curious about a character and a time.” And also about how the events of the day shapes a character’s world.

“My publishers were very upset with me after a while because they wanted me to keep writing books like my first ones. But my passion had moved on.” You have to have passion about something in order to write well about it. “It’s very hard for me to just sit down and write about something. It’s got to have a visceral spark for me to do it — one where I can’t eat or sleep until I do it.”

Short stories are easier to write than novels, according to Muller. “That’s because novels have their finish lines way off in the distance. And talking your stories out is also part of the writing process. You need to try as hard as you can to make your characters distinctive. Dialog is always at the service of developing character — in every dialogue you should be able to distinguish who is talking by the tone of what they say, even without attributions such as ‘he said’ or ‘she said’.”

Muller also said that it was easier to write a novel if you do it a chapter at a time. “I always write little mini-novels, about 20 pages ahead of where I am, because I think you need to leave space for zig-zags. A writer, unlike a pilot who always flies from Point A to Point B, constantly needs to leave his comfort zone. Tell the story you want to tell, not just follow the formula. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone.

“In my novels, I’ve tried to reclaim the hard-bitten dialogues of the 1940s without turning them into parody. Newspaper reporters from that time knew how to relate the facts in the shortest time possible and it is this timing that I’m trying to reclaim. That’s how newsmen wrote back then.”

Muller loved the old newspaper days. “There is nothing more impressive than an old-time newspaper office. The cacophony and urgency of those old newsrooms is gone. My dad worked for William Randolph Hearst and I myself took a job at the Chronicle because I wanted to be there when that behemoth went down. Now no one even goes to the office any more. Work is done at home. The Chronicle is still being published today but it’s just not the same. The romance is gone.

“Face it. Romance happens when people interact. And that just doesn’t happen any more. Everything now is done at home. Bars and theaters and public places are where people interact.” Now people just use the internet and rent videos.

“Always remember that It’s not how you spend your money that is important — it’s how you spend your time.”

Then Muller defined the “Noir” concept for us newbees. “In true Noir, it’s when fate is indifferent and the protagonist knows that he is doing wrong — and does it anyway. He has a tendency to self-destruct. Noir makes you feel the anxiety and despair of these people who knowingly do wrong. Thus Noir can happen anywhere. It doesn’t just happen in the Tenderloin. It also happens in the nicest part of town.”

DAVID BALDACCI: As a lawyer, I did the same thing that I did later as a writer — tell a story. It’s all about words. You do the research and then you tell the story. Transitioning between being a lawyer and being a writer was smooth. And your reader is like your jury.” I agree. I used to write personal injury settlement briefs — which is just like writing soap opera.

“I do a lot of research but don’t use 99% of it. Then after you have all the points down, you shorten it. Your final product should be all muscle, no fat. If it doesn’t describe a character or advance the plot, take it out. Distill it down to the best stuff — from 100 pages down to one paragraph if need be. But you still need to do the research.” I myself hate research — but Baldacci apparently thrives on it.

“One time I went out on a police patrol doing research and the policeman busted five criminals. And I swear this happened. As one of the criminals was lying there on the ground in handcuffs, he looked up at me and said, ‘I love your books!’ It really happened.”

When Baldacci was a lawyer, he saw a lot of justice not being done. “All of my books are about seeking justice. Sometimes my characters find it and sometimes they don’t.”

And none of Baldacci’s heroes are perfect — just as none of his villains are totally bad. “My villains can rationalize any behavior they commit. They are not a part of society so why should they care about society? And while 99% of us have a societal inhibitor that prevents us from acting on our feelings, some of us don’t. Look at Ted Bundy. His brain was just freaky. But most other villains are motivated because they have been left out of society.” Yeah, like most of Americans have been left out of the global corporatists’ grand schemes for MY country. But does that make us villains too? Hopefully not.

“My brain is always going on stories. You can’t turn it off — always thinking about writing. Even now. It’s absolutely never turned off. Wherever you go, whoever you meet, it’s all fodder for stories.”

Regarding inspiration, “The spectacular ideas, the Eureka moments, the epiphanies don’t happen often. I get ideas and extrapolate on them and distill and increase them so they will amount to a 400-page novel that someone other than your mother will read.”

Regarding many writers’ lack of self-confidence, Baldacci was hopeful. “I’m still fearful about my abilities, but that is a great combatant to complacency. Every book I write is like my first one. If you do this, you write a better book. But all people in the creative business have to have a high level of confidence. To put yourself out there to strangers is hard. Who do you write for? Your readers? No. I write for myself — not what sells, not what’s hot. I ask myself, ‘Do I want to spend a year of my life with this? Is this stuff cool?’”

Baldacci’s latest book is called “Hell’s Corner” and it’s about his regular group of characters, the Camel Club. “And it’s all smoke and mirrors, which is what Washington DC is all about. It’s my tip of the hat to DC.” Baldacci also talked about his favorite charitable project — trying to get more books into the homes of poor children.

LAURIE R. KING: “Sherlock Holmes is a terribly useful guy [for juicing up a plot]. I got about two lines into my first Mary Russell book and thought, ‘Oh crap. I really should learn more about Holmes.’” And apparently she did. I love king’s series about Mary keeping bees with Sherlock and later becoming his wife.

“I first sat down to write when my son had just gone off to pre-school for three glorious days a week. I wrote my first book on paper, typed it up and sent it off. Publishers’ reaction? Silence. I was such an ignoramus when I first started submitting manuscripts. I didn’t have an agent. Many publishers don’t take unsolicited manuscripts. I sent the thing out to publishers for three years with no luck, and then the Linda Allen agency took me on and I started selling manuscripts — but it only took me six years from writing my first book to its publication.” And it’s even rougher now to find a publisher than it was back then.

Sometimes readers stop and ask, “Would a character really do that?” Apparently books that have too many weird things happening in them usually don’t work. But the Mary Russell series certainly does.

JOSEPH FINDER: “My standards for what I write have grown higher over the years. Unfortunately, however, my skills have remained the same — except that now I have a better sense of structure and a better idea of what I’m trying to do. And being a published author now and doing all that it entails takes away from my writing time.”

Regarding having a book turned into a movie, Finder said, “I’ve sold a number of books to Hollywood that never got made into films. In Hollywood, writers are so low on the totem pole that they are below the ground. One time I tried to get an acting part in my movie [like Hitchcock did] and that was really strange. In Hollywood, they have a false respect for novelists but they mistrust us. Once, someone actually told me that I didn’t understand what my own novel was even about. They leave out all the good novelistic stuff in my books there, so now I just write what I think they will cut out. First they buy the script. Then they laugh at it. I don’t need that.”

And Finder actually likes to do research for his novels too. “When writers go to a place to do research, we go with heightened senses. But research is a dangerous drug for me. I love research. It’s like heroin. I start out with insecurity, knowing not much. And what you learn, you can’t show it off — it’s only the tip of the iceberg of what finally ends up going into the book.” I hate research.

“I read Robert Ludlum and John Forsythe when I was just starting out. I read a whole bunch of different thrillers. As writers, we start out imitating someone else and then we find our own voice.”

But Finder doesn’t waste his time writing on subjects that are familiar to him. “I hate the advice, ‘Write what you know.’ That’s crap. I always write what I want to find out. And someone said, ‘Suspense is undermined by humor.’ Screw that. I want to write what I want to write. Write what you like to write. If it clicks in the marketplace, that’s a plus. If publishers don’t like it, too bad.” Totally!

“The biggest struggle is actually just sitting down to write. But you have to keep writing because once you get into it, it’s really wonderful. I wish someone had told me that the first book is not the end-all and be-all. Just keep writing! But I still fear the empty document screen. Just shut everything else off and write. But if you get blocked, just take a look at your outline the night before, sleep on it and work on it in the morning.”

I’ve heard that before — that our brains sort stuff out for us in our sleep and we do our best creative work when we first wake up in the morning because our brains have already done most of the dirty work for us while we slept.

ANDREW KLAVAN: At first I wasn’t going to review Klavan’s suggestions on writing because I didn’t agree with his politics. However I have changed my mind about that. Why? Because of something that some guy I correspond with on the internet said recently. Internet Guy and I have such completely polar opposite views about how America should be run that, frankly, I almost hate him. I mean really! Teabaggers like him have just sold out our country to foreign interests and global corporations solely because the Supreme Court decision regarding Citizens United now allows our former democracy to go to the highest bidder — whoever can pay for the most libelous and mendacious campaign ads. But I digress.

Anyway, I thought I would NEVER have anything in common with Internet Guy, who I considered to be a completely ignorant schmuck, a willing victim of corporate brainwashing — but then I suddenly discovered that he and I were both murder-mystery fans! So maybe Internet Guy isn’t such a dumby after all (except for in politics of course, where he is clueless). And so perhaps I should give Klavan a chance too.

“I like screenwriting because it gets me out of the house,” said Klavan. “Writing novels is a lonely business — but I still love writing them. But the results of writing for Hollywood are so random. Sometimes they are good, sometimes bad.”

Klavan’s influences? “Raymond Chandler. He is the portrait of what a man should be like. And when I was 19, I read ‘Crime and Punishment’ and it changed my life. Someone just said of my latest book, ‘It’s like Chandler meets Dostoevsky.’ And I started out with no mentors, just walking around New York City with a manuscript box under my arm, literally getting thrown out of publishing offices.” Apparently this is the story of every writer’s life.

“One of the dangers of writing is that other stuff that you need to do keeps creeping in and grabbing up you time. I’ve been setting aside four hours a day to write since I was 14. And I still have to do that.”

MARTIN CRUZ SMITH: This man is one of my favorite writers — him and Janet Evanovich. “Writing is harder for me these days. It seems like everything interrupts me now. There’s either too much noise — or else too much quiet.”

Regarding Hollywood? “Hollywood has a technique that is debasing. It’s like you have a raincoat, they take it, jump up and down on it and throw it in the gutter. After that, do you really want it back? One main actor even apologized to me for what they did to my book.”

Regarding research? We have to evoke Donald Rumsfeld when we write — we have to know what we don’t know. The key to a good research interview is to just listen. Let it flow. I went to Russia to write and Moscow was such a fantastic city that I had to throw away my planned American character for a Russian one.”

Smith was most influenced by “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” and James Caan is his favorite American writer. “You have to find those tiny little bits of detail that come together and make the character come to life. My advice is to don’t listen to anyone else, just write. Write until your butt is sore. Stay home from those writers’ conferences and just write.”

And as a writer, you have to be hyper-aware. “A pitcher sees only home plate — but a writer see everything. And you put everything into your book.” And then you go out and look for a publisher — and press your luck.

LEE CHILD: He was at the convention too, mingling. Unlike some other writers, Child seems to like mingling with his fans. I saw him in the hotel lobby. He’s really tall. But I missed his presentation because I was off babysitting Mena the Kid. However, I am now reading his books and trying to catch up on his hero Jack Reacher, the impossibly perfect man, almost an American version of James Bond.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of international-spy-ring, CIA assassination, testosterone-laced who-dun-it types of murder mysteries, as a result of learning about them (and getting free copies of them) at BoucherCon — and also because I’m still trying to figure out what is REALLY going on in that clandestine American nether-world of black ops, assassinations, skulduggery and unaccountability that most of us Americans know nothing about — but still have to pay for. And this type of mystery writer lets us in on the ground floor of what is really going on behind all those closed doors. And it ain’t pretty. Or democratic. Or American. But Karl Rove would definitely approve.


To see photos of the murder-mystery authors and Clifford the Big Red Dog giving Mena an interview, click here:


October 30, 2010

Jane & Mena’s big adventure: Our recent visit to Hello Kitty!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Jane Stillwater @ 2:30 pm

Sometimes you just gotta take a break from observing the ever-present world stage of human tragedy and go out and have fun! So last week me and my two-year-old granddaughter Mena went over to San Francisco to see Hello Kitty celebrate her 50th birthday. According to a recent 7-Live newscast, this event was to take place on Justin Herman Plaza at 1 pm, and consisted of a mobile Hello Kitty store, some free gift bags and an opportunity to get your photo taken with Hello Kitty herself!

So we popped onto the BART train and took off.

Was the event crowded? Yes it was. We got there two hours early and there were already at least 200 people standing in line. One woman said that she had left her house that morning at 6 am so that she would be sure to get a gift bag. And everyone there was a huge Hello Kitty fan!

Demographics? Most of the fans there were adults — many of whom have loved Hello Kitty since childhood. And why not — what’s not to love? Guilty pleasure — I love Hello Kitty too. Many Japanese-Americans and Japanese turned out for the event. And most fans were women. Me too. And so was Hello Kitty!

The prices of things for sale at the mobile store were a bit on the expensive side. A commemorative T-shirt was $35, a small plastic coin purse was $12. Small stuffed animals were $28. Plus it took forever to get waited on.

However, a good time was had by all and we made lots of instant friends while waiting in line to get our photos taken with Miss Kitty. “But what about the gift bags?” you might ask. Only 50 of them were given out, plus they gave the first 50 arrivals a number (written on their hands) so that there would be no cutting in line. Rats. But I did get a sneak peek at the gift bags even though we had arrived too late to actually score, and they contained stickers, a note pad, a pencil and a small coin purse. I want one!

The Hello Kitty “Small Gifts” 50th-birthday mobile tour was a really fun event, mostly because of all the enthusiastic fans that we met — but also because we got to actually get our photos taken with a real, life-sized Hello Kitty. And she even patted young Mena on the head.

Moral of the story? Even a hardened reporter like myself can still succumb to “cute” — and that advertisers and promoters still have us where they want us.

PS: Mena went as a witch for Halloween this year — which reminds me of all the female Tea Party candidates who have been circling like sharks churning the waters during this election cycle: Sarah Palin, Meg Whitman, Christine O’Donnell, Carly Fiorina, Michelle Bachmann, etc. Remember back in the day when we women would have been honored and pleased to have so many female candidates running for federal office? I surely don’t feel that way now.

PPS: Speaking of honor, Glasgow Sunday Herald war correspondent David Pratt has just written a very moving article entitled “There is never an argument to defend the use of torture”. Pratt himself was tortured when he was reporting from Bosnia back in 1995.

“The gunmen who took me prisoner claimed to be Croatian militiamen, but were, in reality, little more than thugs and gangsters,” wrote Pratt. “During my short captivity, along with other civilian prisoners, I was bound and beaten with rifle butts before being singled out one night to be shot. To this day, I’ve never really been able to figure out what then followed – a mock execution or simply a case of my captors, who were drunk at this point – making a cock-up of trying to kill me.

“The last I remember of that night, was kneeling with my hands tied behind my back looking down into a ditch where others lay twisted and lifeless. Then there was the sound of a pistol being cocked before being put to the back of my head. A second later, there was an empty click and some mocking laughter before a thump on the back of my neck sent me to oblivion into the ditch where I later regained consciousness lying alone among a heap of bodies.”

The point that Pratt goes on to make is this: “At the end of the day, real democracies don’t do torture. In today’s war on terror, far from being a necessary evil, torture is plain evil: a morally reprehensible act that is in itself is a form of terrorism.

“No matter how much we try to justify it as a means to an end, in fighting today’s war on terror, it simply can never be so. Those states that advocate its use are little better than those morally bankrupt thugs at whose hands I, along with countless others, suffered in Bosnia all those years ago.

“As the French Algerian author, Albert Camus, eloquently put it: ‘Torture has perhaps saved some, at the expense of honor…even when accepted in the interest of realism and efficacy, such a flouting of honor serves no purpose but to degrade our country in her own eyes and abroad.’”


October 24, 2010

BoucherCon: David Baldacci, Martin Cruz Smith & 1,000 middle-aged ladies

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Jane Stillwater @ 7:02 pm

I love to read — and murder mysteries are my favorite things to read in the whole world. So when a huge murder-mystery writers’ and readers’ convention came to San Francisco this year, I just HAD to go. And BoucherCon didn’t disappoint. For four whole glorious day, I got to absolutely wallow in the literary nuts and bolts of who-killed-who.

I got to ask Joseph Finder, a mega-blockbuster big-selling author who is also an expert on Afghanistan, “If you were to write a Who-Dun-It about Afghanistan, what would be the plot and how would you solve that particular mystery?”

Finder gamely replied, “I’d make it into a comedy of errors. The Afghan government is not doing what you think it is doing and everyone else is also being fooled.” Yeah, especially the average Afghan and us taxpayers — at this point, we seem to be playing the role of the corpse.

And I got to ask Martin Cruz Smith, “How in the freak did you learn so much about the inside workings of a Russian fish-factory ship?”

“Because I was no longer welcome in Russia at the time I wrote ‘Polar Star,’ I figured that I’d just go up to Dutch Harbor in Alaska and see if I could sneak onto a Russian factory ship there. Those ships are like a small floating piece of Russia. When I wrote the Russian government for permission to board one, they replied that there wouldn’t be one up in Dutch Harbor for another four months. So, knowing the Russians like I do, I immediately hustled right up there. And I was able to get aboard one and even take photos and make notes. But when the captain found out that I had come aboard, I thought I was going to be in big trouble — but instead he just asked me to join him for dinner.” Cruz Smith is welcome in Russia now, BTW.

But most important of all, I got to ask David Baldacci a most burning question: “How come, if you have sold millions and millions of copies of books that expose the CIA as basically an above-the-law group of paid assassins — and millions and millions of Americans have read your books — then how come nobody in America seems to be trying to put a leash on the CIA?”

“I don’t know why that is. But all I can do is to just keep writing and hope.”

For two of the four days that the BoucherCon was in San Francisco, I was forced by circumstances beyond my control to bring along my two-year-old granddaughter Mena. I myself was completely enthralled by BoucherCon. Mena, however, was totally bored. Sure, she tried really hard to be a good girl for me — but she’s a freaking two-year-old after all. She can’t even read Janet Evanovich yet let alone Laurie R. King, Lee Child, Rhys Bowen or Denise Mina (all of whom were there BTW — except for Janet Evanovich, unfortunately. I would have asked her to autograph all 20 of her books, which I currently own most of).

When I first arrived at BoucherCon, I noticed that approximately three out of four of the murder-mystery fans in attendance were middle-aged ladies. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “look at that! There are rooms and rooms full of possible grandmothers here! Surely I can get some sympathy for having had to bring along my granddaughter — and maybe possibly even get some help.” Sigh. What alternative planet had I been living on? These middle-aged-lady mystery readers were definitely NOT maternal.

And on the last day of the convention, they staged a fancy awards brunch in the Hyatt Regency Grand Ballroom — but I was still stuck with young Mena. What to do? I brought Mena along. She sat quietly through a seminar featuring Susan Dunlop and Robert S. Levinson on the subject of writing books set in San Francisco as opposed to writing books set in Los Angeles — like the sweetheart that Mena really is. But when the time came for the super-finale fancy brunch, Mena staged one of those humongous uncontrollable scary melt-downs like only a two-year-old can.

So here’s Mena, rolling around on the floor of the Grand Ballroom, kicking and SCREAMING!

And here’s me, embarrassed beyond belief, trying to shrink into the woodwork and pretend that I’ve never seen this child ever before in my life.

And here’s a whole ballroom full of 1,000 middle-aged potential grandmother types — staring at me in HORROR, as if I personally had just bumped off Sherlock Holmes.

Finally, one (1) very kindly middle-aged lady did try to help, but by that time Mena was totally in wigged-out-semi-epileptic-craziness mode and practically bit her. OH NO!

At last some saintly waitress strode over and humanely handed me a cup of hot coffee — and Mena wore herself out. “Can we eat now?” Mena asked prettily, in that totally innocent way that only two-year-olds who are just recovering from the fit of a lifetime can pull off. “I’m hungry, Gaia.” I just be you are.

PS: I also scored a bunch of free books. And, what is even more important, I learned the names of a whole bunch of new mystery authors that I had never even heard of before. Prior to this convention, I had thought that I either knew about or had actually read most murder-mystery authors, but BoucherCon showed me that I only knew the tip of the iceberg.

PPS: The next BoucherCon will be in St. Louis in 2011. I would really like to be there because I totally loved the San Francisco BoucherCon. And so did Mena. I think.


To see photos of young Mena at BoucherCon, click here:


October 21, 2010

Sarah Palin & the Dalai Mama: Two very different speakers come to Silicon Valley

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Jane Stillwater @ 9:27 pm

The other day, me and my family all piled into my son Joe’s car and drove down to San Jose to see the Dalai Lama in person. Not surprisingly, there were approximately15,000 other people there who had gotten the same idea as us. The San Jose Convention Center was jam-packed and sold out.

Have you ever tried to assemble almost your entire family at one time and in one place? Frazzling. But we did it — because all of us really wanted to go see the Dalai Lama. And driving to San Jose, getting lost a whole bunch of times and searching for parking within walking distance was even worse — especially with two-year-old Mena on board.

“Quick! Take a picture of the Dalai Lama with your cell phone,” I ordered my daughter Ashley — who immediately got busted by an usher for taking unauthorized photos and almost got her phone confiscated too. Oops.

“There’s Pierce Brosnan,” said my son.

Then Mena ran away from us, hunkered down under an exhibit table in the lobby and had to be dragged out screaming by a security guard. Then, once inside the venue, she immediately tore down the main aisle toward the front, yelling, “Dalai Mama! Dalai Mama!” like she was some kind of long-lost sacred rinpoche reincarnation finally about to be reunited with her mum. And she almost made it too — but a security team stopped her at the third row.

And I myself spent a goodly amount of time searching the venue for elevators and coffee — I don’t do so good with stairs these days and am probably the last person in my generation to succumb to the lure of caffeine addiction.

But finally we were all seated and the Dalai Lama started to speak — but I have no idea what he said because the sound system was lousy. “Humility, peace, love and compassion,” is my closest guess. Who knows. But by the time he finished speaking, all 15,000 of us audience members clearly felt like we’d just been calmed, soothed, mellowed out and given the gift of great hope. It was a truly awesome moment, well worth every hassle.

And as we drove out of the parking structure after this extraordinary and inspiring experience, I spotted a big poster near the exit that read, “Next Event — Sarah Palin”. And we were all immediately struck by the contrast in messages between the speaker we had just heard and the speaker to come. On this singular afternoon, the “Dalai Mama” had fired us all up with his universal message of peace, love and hope — and yet there, surrounded by the very same air that the Dalai Lama had just breathed, Sarah Palin would soon be trying to fire up people with her mean-spirited messages of violence and hate.

I will NOT be taking young Mena to go see Sarah Palin.

PS: I just read where only 1,200 people showed up at Sarah Palin’s event. Ha!

PPS: I dearly love the Daily Kos but writing there on the subject of Israel and Palestine can be truly tricky — because if you cross a certain invisible line regarding that subject, Kos readers will really yell at you (a lot):


August 22, 2010

Conflicts of interest: Secret Qi Gong self-massage techniques, babysitting & blogging

By the time I get done trying to entertain my two-year-old granddaughter all day, I don’t have much energy left for blogging. Sure, I write a lot of stuff down — but when I read back what I just wrote, it all seems like dookie. But even if I could somehow manage to write meaningful prose of Shakespearean quality, so what? Most Americans are too busy getting fleeced by the Republican noise machine to even have time to read any of my humble stuff anyway.

Screw it. At least two-year-olds give you an occasional smile.

However, today I really would like to write about some secret Qi Gong massage techniques that I learned 32 years ago, from a wandering Tibetan Buddhist monk. “I learned these in a secret cave in China,” he told me back then, “and if I teach them to you, you can’t tell ANYONE about them. Not anyone. Okay?” Sure.

But 32 years later, with the world going to hell in a hand-basket and 1% of the rich owning 83% of the stock market and almost all of our taxpayer money being vacuumed off to kill orphans in Afghanistan, why bother even trying to keep secrets any more? So here’s the story on secret Qi Gong self-massage techniques from hidden caves in China: Please watch it now, while we still have Net neutrality and you still have access to the internet.

Oops. Gotta go. Sesame Street is on and Mena and I gotta go watch it.

PS: Here’s a video segment of Senator Al Franken’s speech on Net neutrality, FYI:

I also took notes on this speech at the Netroots Nation convention in July, so here are my fairly-raw notes on that speech — wherein Sen. Franken actually encourages us blogger types to hang in there. “We march forward because the future belongs to those who are passionate and work hard. And that has to be us. We can’t give up. And we have to take pride when we make progress. This country is a better place because of us.”

Hey, tell that to Mena next time she gets all chatty at 2 am!

Sen. Franken in Vegas: Lies, lies & access to truth

Five years ago, GWB and the right wing echo chamber and the wealthy had built what seemed like an unstoppable machine. But all over the country, progressives were incubating a movement to raise money and back progressive candidates. And they became senators. Five years ago was a pretty exciting time after all. In 2006, we felt a little giddy, like we had pulled off the upset of the century.

In 2008, the energy of the netroots and people-powered activism developed a grassroots movement that was inspiring. More than 200,000 people made an online contribution to my campaign. Thanks. My campaign was based on the help of the conversation online. When the MSM was announcing that my candidacy was dead, it was the citizen bloggers that were showing the world that Minnesota was not Florida.

Now everyone believes that the internet is important. But it is not the whole story. It is only a tool. It depends on what you have to say, not how big a megaphone you have. Our story can and has changed the country.

Paul Wellstone says the future belongs to those who are passionate and work hard. And now we can’t afford to stand around and admire what we have done. Conservatives are now motivated too, and they want to prove that our wins are just a fluke of history. They are just as motivated to stop our movement. You can tell they are motivated because they have boatloads of money. One oilman gave Karl Rove one million dollars for attack ads. Citizens United allows them to spend unlimited funds.

Congress would be a very different place without Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi. VERY different.

We need to prove that 2008 was not a fluke. We have to support great candidates like Joe Sustak and Tarryl Clark [she's running against Michelle Bachmann -- donate here:]

I know that some of you who have elected Democrats haven’t gotten your money’s worth. Immigration reform, the public option. But don’t think for a second that you are not being heard. I go to a lunch every Tuesday with all the Senate Democrats and, believe me, they hear you.

We didn’t get everything we wanted but we did get a lot. These bills were better because you made us make them better. We have a lot of democratic votes but we need more progressive votes. We need to send us more senators like Bernie Sanders. You can’t back out now!

I can’t tell you to be patient because that would be hypocritical. Because I’m not patient. But the Republicans want to take back even what we did get. We have seen what Republicans do when they take control of congress and it ain’t pretty. Plus they are talking like the deficit took place on the day Obama was inaugurated.

They want to cut things that are not government handouts. They want to go back to the dark days of the Bush administration. And this time it may not be so easy for us to regroup. And the corporations have even darker plans — an America where no individual’s rights are so important as to take precedence over America’s corporations.

There are great corporations that aren’t inherently evil, but they are powerful and can be evil if they want ot — or feel that they have to. And our rights are disappearing one right at a time. Your right to a jury trial, to clean water, to privacy. Used to be only the government could threaten you rights — but now corporations can threaten them too. And Net neutrality threats are the biggest danger to your rights.

They want to sell premium access to internet access. When the same company owns both the pipes and the programs we may be in trouble. And as the only senator who has been in show business, I know how communications networks work. Mergers and consolidations mean that they can both control the programs and the means of delivering them.

If Citizens United is allowed to stand, how long do you think it will take before four or five mega-corporations control all access to media? How long do you think it will take before the Fox News network loads five times faster than the Daily Kos.

It’s not just about politics. The internet is an incredible source of innovation. Its value comes from it being open to everyone. YouTube and Twitter started small. How many people are Tweeting right now. The internet has changed our lives. Imagine how an independent producer couldn’t get a show on a network-controlled television. The internet will become like that — major corporation controlled.

I can’t imagine what life in America will be like if this kind of innovation can’t take place. The government can pass rules to protect Net neutrality. And congress is hearing more than enough from the corporations on the other side of this issue and not enough from you. You have to help us fight this.

We are at the worst moment in our history. More unemployment than ever. Climate change. We have to resist and rise to this challenge. If we don’t, no one else will. Even if you only started blogging because you can’t stand President [sic] Bush or wanted single-payer healthcare, you still have to keep at it. We have to fight these battles because we are right and our country is worth it.

We march forward because the future belongs to those who are passionate and work hard. And that has to be us. We can’t give up. And we have to take pride when we make progress. This country is a better place because of us.

In the Obama administration, we have seen progress. These are things that are worth celebrating. And I am confident that we will have even more to celebrate at next year’s Netroots Nation convention.

The Netroots Nation gang has given me the honor of announcing the official location of next years Netroots Nation convention. It’s not as glitzy but it’s a great place for fishing. And if it gets a little to crowded at Marcos’s party you can always come over and hang out at my house. The next Netroots Nation convention will be in Minneapolis!

July 2, 2010

Arnieville: Cutting CA home care will cost us six times as much

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Jane Stillwater @ 1:26 pm

If you walk or drive down Adeline Street in south Berkeley right now, you will see dozens of disabled people camping out on the median strip in the middle of the street. “We call this place Arnieville,” I was told. That, however, is not breaking news. That story has already been covered on TV.

People on crutches and in wheelchairs are out in force, protesting a whole bunch of huge new state budget cuts to their home-care provider’s salaries. These care providers allow disabled Californians to live on their own. The disabled protesters have been camping out in protest against these radical and life-endangering cuts since June 22, 2010. But that’s not hot news either.

The disabled campers are holding a press conference over the Fourth of July weekend. Is that going to be big news too? Probably not. Nor is it breaking news that someone just dropped off a homemade blackberry pie for the disabled protesters to eat as they camped. But it was good news for me! My two-year-old granddaughter Mena got a slice of the pie — and she also got a ride on one disabled camper’s wheelchair. Mena thought that was totally cool. But then she didn’t have to be confined to a wheelchair and totally dependent on her home care provider seven days a week for the rest of her life.

Disabled people are the most courageous people I know.

However, one disabled person disagreed with me regarding wheelchairs. “We are not ‘confined’ to our wheelchairs per se,” she said. “Actually, our wheelchairs liberate us and give us freedom. Without them, we would be forced to spend our lives just lying in bed.” I don’t think that Mena would like that either. And using one’s wheelchair to give oneself freedom is a truly appropriate way to celebrate Independence on the Fourth of July — far more appropriate than Washington’s many attempts in the last ten years to disable the United States Constitution.

Perhaps it is breaking news that people in wheelchairs and with other disabilities are building a life-sized paper mache statue of Arnold Schwarzenegger right here on Adeline Street today. Or perhaps not.

It might be sort of newsworthy that a few dozen disabled people are now out here struggling to keep their protest going, to take care of their camp and to take care of themselves when most of them are physically incapacitated — up to 80 or 90%. Please! If there are any civic-minded young and strong volunteers out there who can come down and lend a hand at keeping the camp running, you will be totally welcome.

“Can I help do the dishes or something?” I asked one of the organizers, a woman with an obvious degenerative disease. “Oh, that’s okay,” she replied, perhaps worried that I didn’t look much stronger or energetic than she did.

No, it’s not news that I’m not as able to do the heavy lifting needed at Arnieville as the Governator himself would be. “Hey Arnie! Come down here and help us pitch some tents!”

What really was the breaking hot news at Arnieville today was when my neighbor Jana Ovebo drove up in her wheelchair and said, “If the state eliminates our home care workers as planned, then I will have to be institutionalized — just in order to survive.” Jana has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was nine years old and can barely even move by herself. And yet she still manages to run her own business, Disability, Resources, Exchange & Mobility Supports (DREAMS). And she still manages to come down to Arnieville and protest.

“The cost of my care if I was institutionalized,” stated Jana, “would be SIX TIMES more than what the state is now paying for home care providers.” Without her home-care workers, Jana would either have to be immediately institutionalized or be allowed to die on the street. Either choice sucks eggs.

And one home-care provider involved in the protest just informed me that, “It’s not only our salaries that are at stake: The Terminator is also trying to eliminate 40% of state funding for the entire disabilities program. This would knock thousands of people off the program all together. Then there’s the cuts to Medi-Cal, Adult Day Health and other services that keep seniors and people with disabilities in their communities.” And these people would also have to be institutionalized at six times the cost of what we are paying now? Yikes!

Hurray for Arnieville! That’s the GOOD news.

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