Saturday, November 20, 2010

On Hiatus

Please excuse my absence as I plan a new direction for my blog, possibly in a new site.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Koran Burning Misguided

I may not be an influential world figure, but I just want to go on record as condemning the “International Burn a Koran Day,” organized by Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida.

It saddens me in the deepest possible way to think that this pastor fervently believes such a hateful act is the right thing to do. The pastor’s idea is that Islam is “of the devil” and must be challenged in an aggressive way. By planning this for the anniversary of September 11, he is obviously equating Islam with terrorism, which is ill-informed and harmful.

Burning the Korans is a way to express condemnation and disrespect for Islam, which is what he wants.  But I can’t understand how he thinks it will help to eradicate Islam, which is presumably his goal. On the contrary, his action could only have the effect of strengthening Muslims’ commitment to their religion. In addition, terrorists who are Muslim could point to this incident to prove their rightness in attacking the West—and that is the most dire outcome of this misguided action.

I pray that the pastor will change his mind and not go forward with his plans. However, he has already caused a lot of damage just by planning such an event. I hope that Muslims around the world recognize that he does not speak for most Americans, for most Christians, or for most of any other group.

I hope you'll join me in speaking up against these plans.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Solar Tour de Force

It is said that the sun rays falling on the earth in just one HOUR could supply the electricity needs of the whole world for one YEAR.

Tells you a lot about the enormous potential of solar energy. Of course sunlight needs to be captured and fed into electrical circuits, or stored. The good news is that advanced technology to do this already exists and is constantly pressing forward.

Maybe you’ve considered installing some solar panels or a solar hot water system on your roof (or mounted on the ground) but want to see something concrete first?

Just your luck, there’s a National Solar Tour coming up on October 2, 2010, sponsored by the ASES (American Solar Energy Society.) Hundreds of homes, businesses or public buildings with solar arrays will host a tour that day. You can see solar installations with your own eyes, get information, ask your questions.

For a tour close to you, visit and click on the icon for the National Solar Tour. Let me know how it goes!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Write What Engages You: An Interview with Meredith Sue Willis

Following up on my interview with Meredith Sue Willis in May, I recently talked to her about her new book, Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel.  Please see my Guest Blog on Kathy Temean's Writing and Illustrating site for the interview.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Evan's Photograph

I’m happy to announce that my short story (adult) Evan’s Photograph was published in the Women Who Write literary journal Goldfinch 2010! I just received my copy in the mail Thursday.

It was a lot of fun to write:
Physicist Ted Everett believes his mysterious new friend Evan is hiding something from him, and he intends to find out what it is.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Does the name “” catch your eye? How about if you knew it was an organization started to unite people around the world to work for solutions to climate change?

350 refers to the amount of CO2 per million in the air. If we can’t get our carbon levels below 350, (we’re now at 392) the problems of climate disruption will continue and increase. Check out some spectacular photos of people all over the world raising awareness on the home page of There’s a cool wordless animated video (1.5 minutes) to explain the problem in a way people of any language will understand at

Finally, they’re organizing a Global Work Party on October 10, 2010 (10-10-10) for doing in-the-trenches environmental work, such as planting trees, fixing bikes, installing solar panels, and anything creative people can imagine.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Put Solar on It

What would happen if world leaders installed solar panels on their roofs, such as on the White House? Would this symbolize their commitment to promoting solar energy? Bring attention and galvanize others to follow suit?
          All of the above is the impetus behind “Put Solar on It,” a citizen’s campaign that is part of’s Global Work Party on October 10, 2010—10-10-10. Citizens all over the world are asked to send a note to their leaders (see link below) which ends,
Install solar panels on your roof, and then enact legislation to make it possible for everyone in your country to join you in the clean energy future. We need you to act symbolically—and then we need you to act for real.
          So far Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives has signed on. Other leaders targeted are Barack Obama, Pratibha Patil of India, Felipe Calderon of Mexico, Hu Jintao of China, Julia Gillard of Australia and David Cameron of the United Kingdom.
If you agree with me that this is a great idea, go to to write to your leaders and get more information.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

I absolutely loved the middle-grade novel The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Jacqueline Kelly, 2009, Henry Holt and Company) and recommend it to children and adults alike.

It’s the blistering summer of 1899 in rural Texas, and eleven-year-old Calpurnia Tate is having trouble resigning herself to the rigid roles prescribed for girls and women of the times. But when she unexpectedly develops a camaraderie with her curmudgeonly grandfather over their common appreciation of the natural world, Calpurnia’s life becomes more bearable. He shares his knowledge about the plant and insect world, as well as about famous woman scientists, opening up for her a whole new world. Just as importantly, her grandfather understands her when her parents don’t.

Jacqueline Kelly has a knack for turning everyday life into an engaging story, as Calpurnia’s budding ambitions steer her into a collision course with societal expectations. A heartwarming story of love, acceptance, and the triumph of the spirit. Calpurnia is a strong and unforgettable protagonist with a voice both poetic and delightfully humorous.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Keeping up with the Writing Profession

It’s a drag to keep up with any profession. But writers have it the worst. To stay up-to-date we’re actually expected to read everything out there in our genre—can you believe it? I mean doctors have the pleasure of poring over ground-breaking journal articles on the indications and side effects of new pharmaceuticals. My husband, an electrical contractor, gets to take stimulating seminars on updates in National Electrical Code. Meanwhile, as a writer for young people, I have to force myself to sit down and read The Hunger Games and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, when I’d rather be vacuuming.

I’m supposed to read the children’s best sellers, the award winners, the novels by the agents I’m researching. I’m supposed to read any book mentioned in a blog or by a fellow writer because it’s a good example of voice, or plot, or dialogue. And, as if that’s not unpleasant enough, I encumber myself with the additional requirement to read one adult novel a month too—distasteful, yes, but I wouldn’t want to appear ignorant when someone mentions The Help or The Time Traveler’s Wife, now would I?

Does any other profession have it so hard?

I’m not even getting big bucks as a writer, and I’m still expected to shoulder this burden. Maybe we writers should all unite together and demand of publishers, “Stop selling so many books—the work is killing us.”

Are you with me? If so, send me an e-mail. I’ll get back to you right after (sip of tea) I find out what happens in the next chapter of this book I’m reading.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Gardening Dilemma

I spent some time working in my vegetable garden this morning. There is nothing like the calming, productive feeling you get from tending the land with your own hands, especially on a weather-perfect day! I picked some lettuce, planted some edamame, and weeded.

The hardest part was weeding out some of the too-many “volunteer” tomato plants—I hate to pull out healthy, growing plants. I got friends to take some plants, but I still have literally dozens of extras, which by now are pretty big. (Want some?) Today I tried to be ruthless and just pull them. But I couldn’t get myself to weed the ones that already have flowers, even though I know the consequence will be too much crowding in the garden. 

What’s the lesson here? Pull them out when they’re still tiny seedlings, so I don’t feel so bad? Or more “networking”—could I have found a home for every one of them, if I’d tried harder? Or, don’t worry about it so much? In gardening, like other human endeavors, it’s never one hundred percent unambiguous or easy to know what to do, and sometimes your decisions don’t feel quite right.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Book of Everything

I read The Book of Everything (American edition, 2006, Arthur A. Levine Books) twice because I found it so moving. Written by Dutch author Guus Kuijer, it takes place in Amsterdam of 1951, when the Netherlands are still reeling from the effects of the Nazi occupation of their country. The story of nine-year-old Thomas revolves around his anguish over his father hitting his mother (and himself.) After one such episode we feel Thomas’s distress. “God was silent in every language. The angels tried to dry their tears, but their handkerchiefs were so soaked through that it started raining even in the deserts.”

But what can a young boy do to stop the abuse of his controlling, rigidly religious father? Fortunately some intriguing characters help him along the way, including his neighbor, his aunt, his sister and his mother. The story unfolds almost without noticing, but every detail leads to the powerfully dramatic climax.

A bleak subject, true, but somehow the reader reaches the last page experiencing the goodness of humanity mixed in with its faults. The writing is lyrical, funny at times, and a remarkable journey through the mind of a nine-year-old as he revises the religious ideas his father wishes to instill. I recommend this book to adults, as well as children.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Baykidi Stones

So many people have asked me what my novel is about that I thought I’d tell about it here. I’d love to know what you think. I am currently searching for an agent.

The Baykidi Stones (pronounced By-kee-DEE)
For ages 11-14

Ethnic tensions are smoldering in the Pacific island of Jalahar, where pockets of combatants challenge the government. Fourteen-year-old Velu, who is of the privileged ruling class, unwittingly interrupts a killing by insurgents, and finds himself on their hit list. He flees from his city, aided by people he barely knows. In his zeal to foil his pursuers, he mistakenly betrays innocent people to authorities. Soon he learns the people he denounced are part of an underground group working to unite the country’s two ethnic groups and to bring change using the “strengths of the heart,” rather than war. Can their methods really gain the release of those imprisoned due to his mistake, and can Velu help an unarmed crowd avert a bloodbath in a stand-off with government soldiers?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Imagination and Experiences: An Interview with Author Meredith Sue Willis

        Meredith Sue Willis was born and raised in West Virginia. She is the author of The Secret Super Powers of Marco (Montemayor, 2001; HarperCollins, 1994), Marco’s Monster (Montemayor, 2001; HarperCollins 1995), Billie of Fish House Lane (Montemayor, 2006) for children, and The City Built of Starships (Montemayor, 2004) for young adults. She also has published eleven titles for adults, including three on the craft of writing. Her newest book, Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel is soon to be released (June 2010) by Montemayor Press. 
       She teaches Creative Writing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and gives creative writing workshops to children and young people as a writer-in-the-schools with the New Jersey Writers Project and other organizations. She lives in New Jersey.
      I interviewed her about her teaching, her books, her advice for writers, and her thoughts on the themes of books.

TFI:   You teach creative writing to adults and children. Do you have a particular emphasis?
MSW:  A couple of things are striking to me. One is the similarities between the writing self-identified adult writers do and what kids do. There are obvious differences, especially with the willingness of children to see writing as a kind of play, but everyone starts with the materials of their imagination and experience: objects, physical senses, memories, dreams. I tend to emphasize the kinds of writing that begin with those common things.

So you start with an object, let’s say. What’s the next step? How do you guide your students to develop an object into to a plot?
I usually hold off on the plot (at least in writing classes) in the beginning. I like people (kids or adults) to imagine an object with all the senses—the weight of it, the texture, the smell, sound, possibly even the taste. If it's something that doesn't make its own sound, why not drop it on the floor to hear how it pings!
By exploring an object this way with your senses, you get a lot of so-called "details," but that's less important to me than the way the senses can lead you into memories and new insights, and the memories and insights can lead to new story ideas, including plot developments: "When he dropped the ring, it made a clicking noise as it struck the hardwood floor and skittered under the bureau."
Aha, I think: “The floor isn't carpeted, the boy drops the ring. What if he is accused of stealing it, and all the while it is under the furniture. . . ."
In other words, the more fully and deeply you create the world of your story, whether you are an adult or a child, the more material you have and the more possibilities you have for development.

Do you have any infallible advice for aspiring children’s authors hoping to get published? Or, if that’s asking too much, what do you wish you knew when you were first getting started?
The short answer is, no! No infallible advice for aspiring authors! They shouldn't give up, but they should also be aware of how the entire publishing enterprise is in the middle of an incredible overturning and reorganization. Personally, I’m really thankful I developed the habit of and passion for writing long before I knew about getting published. I also am glad that I didn’t know the future– because publishing has gotten harder rather than easier. The good news is that first novelists may have an advantage over writers who have published and not made a bundle of money for their publishers.

Let’s talk about themes. Your Marco books are about a boy learning to find his own power to act in the world. Billie of Fish House Lane explores prejudice and accepting oneself. Just curious—do you typically start with story ideas and discover what themes they point to, or do you start with themes and create stories to illustrate them?
I feel like the best writing begins with concrete experiences or even comes from concrete objects: a face, a place, a voice. Marco was this kid’s voice talking to me– clearly it was related to the voices of children I’d been working with in schools in New York City. I’d also been typing what seemed to be hundreds of their pieces of writing to mimeograph and distribute. So I had a boy’s voice in my head, and I also had a little one-page story I'd written about a boy knocking off car antennae. For Billie, it was a place: on my train rides from Jersey into New York, I’d stare out the window dreamily at this landscape of marshes and rivers and car overpasses and train tracks and abandoned buildings and little roads that seemed to go nowhere– and I’d think: “What if someone lived down there? What kind of family might live there?” Meanwhile, in my public life, I was working with an integration organization in my town, so the themes got wrapped into my imagining this girl in this place.

Do you have anything in the works now?
I’ve always got a few things in the works. One book I’m close to finishing is a young adult novel about a girl who discovers her mother was a terrorist back in the day.

Wow, sounds intriguing, and I don’t have to even ask where you got the idea for that. Or do I?
The idea for this new book was again from some kids I taught in New York City, especially one experimental school I visited, plus some people I know a little who were involved in political bombings and other activities. I personally did a lot of protesting in the past, but never saw any up-side to violence against people or even against property.

Do world issues open up new topics in middle-grade/YA? For example, with all the turbulence in the world today, do you see a market existing or emerging for novels with themes of conflict resolution, solving problems between groups, or transforming “us vs. them” mindsets?
I think we could use a publishing house, probably small, for kids and young people that actually publishes books of the type you’re speaking of. If this publishing house existed, it would, in my opinion, over time find readers and buyers, especially among teachers and librarians, but also in the general public. I believe we’re moving into a time when the biggest success will be for so-called niche writers and publishers: there are niches for religious novels– and also for erotica. Gay and lesbian publications have a niche. My Appalachian fiction for adults usually has a decent number of readers. So if teachers and librarians knew they could depend on a particular publisher for books that were both well-written and idea or issue-oriented, I absolutely think they would buy them.

What do you see as the power of story? Can you think of any stories that influenced you in a direct way, either as a child, or now?
I was deeply influenced as a child by comic books– which I never found very funny! One holiday season my parents bought me a set of something called “Classics Illustrated,” comic book versions of everything from Macbeth (now there’s a scary story) to Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. I can still see in my mind some of the images and remember the thrust of those stories, distilled down to their essence for the comic book format.

How did they leave their mark on you?
I think those comic books of famous works fixed in my mind the trajectory of story-- in a comic, only the high points are illustrated, so without studying or analyzing, you get a sense of how a story builds and comes to a climax. You also have these vivid illustrations of moments of intensity, frozen like a snapshot. The story trajectory and the vivid stop-actions (along with the child's voice, of course) are how stories for children come to me. Adult work is more reflective, slower, focused on memory or even language.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and advice with us, and good luck with Ten Strategies to Write your Novel, and your YA!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Secret Super Powers of Marco

I will be interviewing author and teacher Meredith Sue Willis for my blog in the near future. She has written fifteen adult and children’s books, including several books on the craft of writing. Stay tuned! In the meantime, here is a review of two of my favorite children’s books of hers.

The Secret Super Powers of Marco (Montemayor Press, 2001; HarperCollins, 1994)

Marco believes he has secret powers ever since the night he was out twanging car antennas and one broke off and spiraled so high into the sky that it seemed to turn into a star. He’s not sure what his powers are exactly, but it’s nice to know he can fall back on them if ever his regular abilities are lacking. His powers give him the confidence to befriend Tyrone, the class bully, and retrieve his kidnapped dog from the scary homeless man on the next street. When Tyrone gets in trouble, Marco uses his Mental Sight power (he can see two possible futures in any situation) and prompts the best outcome to happen.

Marco is an eminently likable character who will charm young readers and demonstrate they have the power to act in the world, even in a tough neighborhood.

In the sequel, Marco’s Monster (Montemayor Press, 2001; HarperCollins, 1996) Marco doesn’t get the starring role, the Main Monster, in his fourth grade play—his best friend Tyrone does. Marco, chosen to be the Narrator, is disappointed and not a little bit mad. Then he creates an unusual scene for the narrator that makes it all worthwhile. Now his big task is to make sure Tyrone doesn’t get “three strikes and out”—of the play, including when Tyrone leaves school to help Marco find his missing little sister.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mother's Day for Peace

Julia Ward Howe is credited with first putting forth the idea for Mother’s Day in the U.S., which she called Mother’s Day for Peace. Appalled by the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, she proposed a women’s conference for peace. In her words, “We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

I was amazed several years ago to learn of this original vision for Mother’s Day. It is exactly what I desire as a mother and as a human being, and it’s a beautiful way to celebrate Mother’s Day.

Here is the text of her Mother’s Day Proclamation, widely circulated in 1870.

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,

Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country

To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.

It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."

Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,

Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means

Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,

But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask

That a general congress of women without limit of nationality

May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient

And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,

To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,

The amicable settlement of international questions,

The great and general interests of peace.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Kids and Composting

In observance of Earth Day, I presented composting assemblies for fourth graders in two schools in town. The kids were great. They eagerly volunteered to act out a story, take the “Rot Whiz Quiz” and make a compost-in-a bottle for their classroom. They asked questions that showed me they were thinking.

One boy wanted to know if you could sell finished compost. I told him they sell it in garden stores. I could just see his wheels spinning, planning his next lemonade-stand-like venture.

Although the “compost in a bottle” is meant for kids to observe the process of decomposition, one teacher, surrounded by her students, told me at the end of the assembly that they had just discussed throwing in their apple cores and banana peels after snack time to eliminate some garbage. (They might need a bigger bottle.) Kudos to the students and the very enthusiastic teacher who got her students keyed up about this. Next step: school-wide composting?

I hope the kids took something away from the assembly. I know I did. I was inspired to see that kids were interested in composting and reducing garbage. It gave me hope for the future.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

To Your Health and Happiness

Earth Day is my favorite holiday. I love the outdoor events that celebrate our Earth and all that people are doing to live harmoniously with it. But have you ever noticed that the things that are good for the Earth are also healthful for its human population?

Take one case—reducing use of gasoline. This produces less climate change gases and less pollution. But look at the other benefits.

Walking and biking to places instead of driving is beneficial for our hearts, bone health, mood, immune system, and so many other bodily functions.

Less people driving reduces traffic congestion and thus stress.

It costs less, in terms of gasoline, and indirectly in terms of medical costs and in some cases gym costs.

Walking with others provides the opportunity to connect socially, another de-stressor. It’s great for children walking to school.

Yes, walking and cycling take time, today’s most precious commodity. So maybe the biggest thing we can do for the Earth and for ourselves is to make our lives less busy.

Where can you cut back? Consuming less means shopping less—is that a possibility? If you’re always chauffeuring your children around, can they engage in less structured activities? If you’re an activist, can you focus on fewer issues? Can you spend less time surfing the net? Each person will find a different answer.

Here’s to your health and happiness, and that of the Earth!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Eight Dollars a Gallon . . . For Water

When I was growing up there were no disposable water bottles. You drank water from the tap at home. If you were away there were water fountains. At softball games someone would bring a cooler of a drink and cups. Ditto for picnics.

I ignored bottled water when they made their appearance—thinking them wasteful and expensive—until I had kids. Then I had to deal with the old “but everyone else uses them.” When I researched it, I found my gut was right.
Convenience may be a good argument for disposable water bottles, but drinking safer or better-tasting water is not. U.S. municipalities test their water and have among the safest in the world. (40% of bottled water comes from the tap anyway.) In blind taste tests, most people could not tell the difference between bottled water and municipal water.

Let’s look at convenience. Instead of grabbing a bottle of water, you’d have to fill a reusable water bottle. That’s it! For me, it’s worth that minor inconvenience in order to be a good steward of resources for my future grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Bottle Water and Resource Use
 Much petroleum and water is used to make the plastic bottles themselves.
 17 million barrels of oil are used annually in the U.S to transport water bottles to their destinations—enough to fuel some 100,000 cars for a year.
 Discarded bottles are often littered or sent to landfills. Even the 20% that are recycled are actually “downcycled”—not used to make more water bottles, but other products like chairs and toys that can’t be recycled at the end of their life.
 It’s expensive! Drinking water from the tap (eight cups a day) might cost less than 50 cents a year. Compare that to how much one spends on water bottles. People complain about gasoline prices. The price of bottled water per gallon (based on $1.00 per one 16 oz. bottle) is $8.00 a gallon. From a tap, an average price is $ 0.002 per gallon.

Alternatives to disposable water bottles
 Use a water fountain.
 Carry reusable water bottles, such as stainless steel ones made by Klean Canteen or SIGG.
 For meetings, use pitchers of tap water.

For tips on breaking the water bottle habit, go to the Center for a New American Dream:

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Limits to Social Networking

The buzz word these days is networking. There are so many ways to connect to your professional, volunteer, or social community online, whether it’s through e-mail, websites, forums, blogs, or sites like Facebook.

But . . . while it’s so helpful for me, as a writer, to receive news of the field and share ideas, there is also a downside to this hyper-opportunity—information overload, less face-to-face interaction, and, of course, less time to write.

The disappearing-time factor is lethal. I love writing this blog, and although it does take a few hours, the real time sucker is not the actual writing, but the networking that goes hand in hand. After publishing a post, I need to send out the link to potential readers and “followers,” peruse and post on fellow bloggers’ sites, cross-post, guest blog, etc.

If I spend too much time on networking-deluxe—which is so easy, pleasant, and hypnotic—then where is the time to write? Clearly there has to be a balance. My answer, at least for now, is to limit my online “networking” allotment to a few hours on one day a week, with shorter follow-up later in the week. Obviously I’m missing a lot on the other five days, but what is the alternative? I want to keep writing, and I think my (future) agent and editors will be pleased with that, too.

Let’s hear from you. Do you self-impose limits on your networking activities? What suggestions can you share for dealing with this decidedly 21st century dilemma?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Enemy Images in Politics

Since one of my themes is the harm caused by “enemy images,” I can’t ignore our collective backyard, that is, U.S. politics. Talk show host Dev Ulz-Advokit recently interviewed me about this topic:

D.U. What is the harm caused by Democrats and Republicans railing at each other like enemies? Doesn’t it spice up the news a bit?
T.I. Sure, it generates great entertainment, but it doesn’t make a great country. If we didn’t see each other as enemies, we’d listen to the other side’s legitimate concerns and incorporate them in wise policies, instead of simply posturing to make the other look bad.

D.U. But neither party is going to jettison its position on the issues. Why try?
T.I. The object is not to produce homogeneity. A democracy needs varying perspectives because each side brings up points that the other side may need to hear. For example, beneficial government programs need to be checked by concern for costs, waste and fraud. Military decision-makers need voices apprising them of effective nonmilitary alternatives. In the current health care debate, the moral imperative to provide health care for all needs to be balanced with economics and efficiency.

D.U. OK, so dissension is cool. What’s the problem then?
T.I. The problem is tone. Many debates are undermined when the speakers mischaracterize or ridicule the other side and/or its motives. Then more energy is going into attack and defend, than actual substance and problem-solving.

D.U. You heard that everyone: mischaracterization and ridicule are un-cool. But isn’t that the way of the world?
T.I. Maybe we all need to practice a new way. If Republicans and Democrats can’t even discuss the issues productively, how can we expect, say, the Israelis and Palestinians—who have a much deeper, visceral situation to address—to arrive at a peace agreement? Or the various Iraqi factions to chisel out a viable government?

D.U. Right. So is there anything the average Jane or Joe can do, or are you just blowing hot air?
T.I. We all contribute to the climate of the country, so yes, there is plenty an average person can do. Consider your words, watch your tone. Present your ideas without blaming, put-downs or ridicule. Talk to individuals of a different political persuasion from you and uncover their underlying, after-peeling-away-the-layers concerns and hopes.

D.U. And then what? Don’t leave us suspended.
T.I. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found out their core values were about the same as yours—let me guess—they want security, freedom, fairness, respect and caring? Even if you disagree on how to manifest those values, at least you’ve discovered you’re both humans of the same species who can engage in a constructive conversation.

D.U. Well, thank you, Ms. Idrobo for speaking with me. Now, to our listeners, any dissension out there?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mining "Black Gold"

Because it’s spring and because I just gave a composting workshop on Sunday, I thought I’d write a post on composting.

There are so many benefits to composting, it should be on everyone’s To Do list. It’s enough that composting helps the earth—decreases garbage, reduces use of chemicals, conserves water—and that it brings the joy and satisfaction of being close to nature.

But what about the bottom line? Shh, let me let you in on a secret—that coveted finished compost isn’t called “black gold” for nothing! Compost is a natural, virtually free soil amendment for your garden or lawn. It enhances not only the fertility of your soil, but also its water retention and texture (makes clay soils more loose and sandy soils more substantial.)

Now here’s the clincher: Most towns pay by weight to have garbage hauled away. If more people composted kitchen scraps and yard waste, municipal budgets could save hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our cities and towns need that kind of gold rush today, wouldn’t you agree?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Half of a Yellow Sun

Stories can sometimes help us grasp a complex situation more readily than reading dry facts.

With the tragic cycle of killings and reprisals in Nigeria in the news, I was reminded of the novel Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2006) The novel takes place in the 1960’s before and during the failed war of secession of the Igbo people of the eastern region of Nigeria. The story unravels through the eyes of three characters—Ugwu, a peasant houseboy working for a revolutionary Igbo professor; Olanna, the girlfriend of the professor; and Richard, an Englishman living in the country who falls in love with Olanna’s twin sister. Their lives are interrupted and their loyalties tested by the bloody three-year civil war.

The novel is not only a gripping story of love and betrayal, but it will also clue in foreigners to the complex history, ethnic make-up, and class differences of Nigeria. Through the personal stories of Adichie’s compelling characters, we see the roots and immediate causes of the violence, and how the lives of peasants, intellectuals and the elite alike were affected.

I know much has changed in the past fifty years, but still the novel provides some background to understand modern-day Nigeria. Most importantly it brings the human dimension to readers who sometimes are numbed from all the statistics of death and violence in the world today.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Intersection of Fiction-Writing and Social Change

Good Guys beat Bad Guys—thrilling, suspenseful, satisfying, right?

I enjoy an exciting story as much as the next person. However, as I read hundreds of bedtime stories/novels to my daughters when they were younger, I wished at least some stories featured just-as-gripping nonviolent tactics to save the day. Or explored the whole concept of “the Bad Guys” in all its complexity. Laudably, books on nonviolent social change abound in the nonfiction section. But on the fiction shelves they are as rare as a four-leaf clover.

At that same time, I was a volunteer state coordinator in the campaign for a U.S. Department of Peace (see ) It was very inspiring work, and I loved it. Still I couldn’t help but notice that while I felt lucky to speak to 20 or 25 people about how to move toward a culture of peace, books and movies were easily drawing in thousands of people.

A light bulb went off—Why not get creative types to write novels and screenplays highlighting not-violent, win/win victories? Let people see, through story, how nonviolence works and how valuable it can be. Interestingly, I discovered many others had that same idea. Probably with the turmoil in the world today, we’re all seeing the need to train the spotlight on alternatives to violence.

There is an intriguing intersection of fiction-writing and social change activism. Of course, the road to publication is long and difficult, but it’s a trip worth taking. And there is a whole writing community to help along the way. Now that’s what I call good luck.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rethinking Enemy Images

A guy tries for ten minutes to merge onto a busy boulevard, cursing out the drivers that pass as ignorant and selfish. Finally someone gives him a break. Once on the road, he goes by several merges further on, also with long back-ups of cars waiting to get on. His friend suggests allowing in one of the cars. “Why should I let in any of those idiots?” he responds. “I’m in a hurry.”

It is just human nature to assess our own motives as reasonable and justified, and the motives of others as selfish, despicable, or even evil. This habit, while bad enough on the interpersonal level, can become deadly when practiced by groups or nations. Yet that mindset can be transformed by the simple act of getting to know the “enemy” or “other” and engaging in problem-solving.

I love stories that confront us with this truth. In the middle-grade novel Beyond the Dragon Portal (2005- Melissa Glenn Haber) Sadie travels to Dragonland to find her lost sister. Just when she thinks she understands this strange land and is fired up with anger against the enemy who is killing her dragon friends, she discovers that the truth about the Dragons’ war is much more complicated than she thought. I don’t want to give anything away, but this well-crafted story cleverly enables readers to get an insider’s view of the “enemy” and of war.

I am compiling a list of books that inspire readers to rethink enemy images. Let me know if you have any nominations!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tears of the Desert

Some stories carry the power to grab attention and move people to action. Halima Bashir, in Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur, entices the reader into the heart of her village life where family is everything, where eating alone is considered worse than death. We’re with her through her “cutting time” (female circumcision)—a wrenching, inerasable scene—and as she confronts many hurdles to get an education and later become a physician.

Darfur becomes engulfed in war. One day Dr. Bashir treats forty young schoolgirls who were gang- raped by the Janjaweed. Their injuries are so severe she must stitch them without anesthesia to prevent them from bleeding to death. After recounting the horrific incident to foreigners, she herself is beaten and raped. Bashir is a tough woman, but caught up in an unspeakably brutal situation.

For years I’ve heard about the mind-boggling statistics of death and destruction in Darfur. I even got modestly involved in efforts to put international pressure to stop the violence there through But still, reading her story moved me like nothing before. How can I read this, I asked myself, and not try to do something, do something to help the people there?

That is the power of story.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Themes that Resonate

I love books for their characters and story. But they truly carve a place in my heart when their themes resonate with me and make me think. That is what gives a novel depth. I am a lover of themes!

In particular I’m keen on themes that make me reflect not only on the world as it is, but on the way it could be. For example, The People of Sparks (2004- Jeanne DuPrau, Book 2 of the Ember series) is an endearing children’s novel of a girl and boy caught up in a deteriorating conflict between their people and the people of the city to which they have fled. The characters are memorable and the story is engaging. But its depth is achieved through exploring the themes of understanding, mistrust and hatred. The main characters Lina and Doon act in a dangerous situation with the simple but profound solution of helping rather than hating. Their actions completely transform the situation in Sparks.

Children reading the book witness a wonderful model for dealing with inflamed group emotions. “Helping rather than hating” is a theme that resonates deep in the heart.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

To Choose or Not to Choose?

For a long time I felt I had to choose—because of time constraints—between all my passions in life. Wasn’t I really diluting my time and energy by working for both peaceful and environmentally sustainable communities? But I could never choose one over the other. Both issues have existed in some form or another over my entire life, even as the specific groups I worked with have changed.

I also have two careers, writing (now) and teaching (before). I wished there was some way I could do it all. Or better yet, combine them all.

Now that is my current plan—to merge them all! I want to let the vision of peaceful and sustainable communities both ground and inspire my writing and teaching. I want my recognition of the power of story to enrich my volunteer work in the fields of peace-building and environmental activism.

Will it work? That is the question.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Power of Story

I discovered the power of story when my two daughters were toddlers. I saw how much children love stories and learn from them. My most telling moment came, however, when I was lecturing my daughter about not hitting her sister. She literally covered her ears. But then, in a flash of inspiration, I said, “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who hit her sister. Her mommy said, ‘Don’t hit your sister—that hurts.’” Astonishingly she unplugged her ears and listened! I wasn’t talking about her—I was telling a story.

This story didn’t miraculously change my daughters’ interactions, but it did change me. I soon learned that a willing audience met even my sorriest, told-in-desperation-to manage-a-crisis stories. This, in turn, motivated me to strive for better storylines.

Children are not the only ones who love, retain, and are influenced by stories—we all are. People will zone out on the statistics from a power-point presentation, but muse for days about a human-interest story that captures the essence of the same point. And, in a deeper sense, we’re all influenced by the everyday anecdotes, books, movies, cultural stories, and universal archetypes that soar through our psyches.

Of course, people can use stories to inspire for good or for ill. I dedicate this blog to all those who write or tell stories that, in their own way, make the world a better place.