You guys, we are better and more beautiful together

On Sunday night, two friends and I attended a performance of Complexions, a contemporary ballet company formed by two Ailey alums. Of the three pieces we saw that night, Head Space, Hissy Fits, and Innervisions I honestly couldn’t pick a favorite. They were all spectacular. What’s interesting about this company is that it’s not homogenous. The dancers (you can tell by the company’s name) are of various ethnicities, which, as they dance together, is lovely in itself. But more than that, the dancers, though all lean and muscular, have very different body types. This made synchronous movements varying by degrees, different angles on the torso, longer arms, more muscular thigh. And this for me, was the best thing about every piece.

I’m used to seeing ballets from companies where you can’t tell one dancer from the next. And I suppose that has its place. But I think that kind of ballet and company are as old as the thinking that shapes it–that people must be “of a kind.” You see where this kind of thinking leads us. And in a world where borders can be crossed so easily, and people from everywhere are mixing with everyone, and let’s face it, no one can really say they are purebred anything anymore, it’s time to embrace the diversity and the differences. Not just the skin differences, but all of them. ALL.

Who can argue with images like this?

complexions-230x3002014-11-24-headspace2

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Passive voice

It’s the bane of many writers. We tell rather than show. Editors hate it, of course, and will use its mere presence, even in brief, as their automatic out. This week, I’m working to revise a battle scene in my most recent novel. It’s an eleven-page series that my agent thinks is too passive. I tell what happens to the kids. I don’t show them doing much of anything. If I have any excuse at all, it’s that I cringed at putting these characters in danger. I did not want to dwell on it too much. I wanted to merely observe from a distance, with my hands over my face and only one eye peeking out. Well, you can’t write that way.

Passivity in its best form. Ghandi was active in his pursuit of passive resistance.

Passivity in its best form. Ghandi was active in his pursuit of passive resistance.

I’ve been thinking about passivity in another way too. I have recently waged a battle that some would say I lost. (I simply walked away.) The fact was, I didn’t want to be fighting in the first place. I mistakenly believed that fighting on the right, ethical, true side of things would bring me an automatic win. But it turns out that the side of bad, unethical, and lies, uses all their underhanded methods to achieve their aims, and this is especially true when those who are watching the whole thing take place, are passive. Passivity is lazy. You want something to happen, but you want someone else to take care of it. It’s apathetic. You see, but don’t think you can do anything about it. It’s wrong. It helps the bad guys win.

Yesterday everyone was changing their profile pictures to red to support marriage equality on Facebook. Me too. I did it. But what does that really mean? Does that make us less passive about equality because it took two clicks to change a picture? Not really. I’m watching this one on the sidelines. I changed my picture, but did nothing else. If I really want this to change, I’m going to have to get off my ass.

The thing about being passive, in life and in literature is this: you get what you work for.

If I write a passive scene because I’m too afraid or lazy to get down and dirty, the reader won’t either.

If I am passive about a cause and right does not prevail, it’s my own fault for not doing something about it. There are people who are out there, doing things, protesting. But they need support. Based on what I just experienced, I know. There is a lot of pressure and strain in fighting, but it’s so much more difficult when you’re fighting alone for people who are sitting around waiting for you to get it done already. It’s enough to make a person stop and ask “why am I doing this?” And then with no champions leading the charge, what happens next is this: the bad guys win. And it’s your own damn fault.

Service

blessedI came across this meme on Facebook over the summer, and saved it to my desktop. Every now and then, I take a look at it. As you know, recently my family has dealt with breast cancer, layoffs, and (along with everyone else) a lagging economy. However, I have been feeling blessed and fortunate, and because numbers appeal to me, this meme really stuck.

On January 19th, President Obama has called for everyone to participate in a National Day of Service. I don’t care whether you like the president or not. Volunteering to help others is good. I am considering signing up to give blood and platelets at Memorial Sloan Kettering in NYC. Someone else’s blood and platelets made a huge difference in my life toward the end of chemo, and I’d like to give back. But I haven’t signed up yet because I absolutely hate needles (despite the many that I’ve endured since the diagnosis) and volunteering my arm is not easy for me to do. I’m sure I will do it, I just haven’t quite been able to click that button yet.

If you are interested in volunteering click here to find an opportunity near you.

Thank you, racists

So Suzanne Collins fooled you into caring about black people. What a bitch! I mean, you only cared about Rue and Thresh’s death because you thought they were white, albeit dark-skinned white, but certainly NOT BLACK!!! (Even though their descriptions are pretty explicit in the book.) The horror! It’s as if black people had, I don’t know, feelings. Or MATTERED. As for those Hollywood assholes casting Lenny Kravitz as Cinna! How dare they? He certainly wasn’t described as black in the book! He’s one of the best characters so of course he shouldn’t be black. Black characters can only be the bad guys, or have crappy roles.

It’s the reason it’s perfectly  acceptable for kids like Trayvon Martin to be shot dead in the street with a bag of skittles. He couldn’t possibly be doing anything good. Just look at his skin. AND he was wearing a hoodie! Did you know that he was  suspended from school once and that he was giving the man who shot him attitude? It’s a wonder he wasn’t killed sooner. Right?

Thanks racists, for reminding the rest of us that hatred is alive and well, not just in a set-in-their-ways older population who grew up surrounded by separation, but also in a young, tech-savvy generation who are supposed to be more connected to a wider, and more inclusive world.

It’s good to know what you think.

Links:

Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Very Disappointed

Witnesses in Trayvon Martin Death Heard Cries Before Shot

Reflecting on the Trayvon Martin Tragedy (letters to the editor)

What Everyone Needs to Know About the Smear Campaign Against Trayvon Martin

 

Book 14: THE KING WHISPERERS

A friend once told me that she didn’t want to be the person in charge, she wanted to be the person behind the person. Power up close without the responsibility sounds good, but as Kerwin Swint shows in THE KING WHISPERERS, the #2 job isn’t without it’s hazards. These people had their ambition, faithfulness, or ideology met with intrigue, backstabbing, bloody revenge and a political minefield that left many broken, both physically and financially. Swint divides the historical cast into type (Machiavellians, Kingmakers, Spies, etc.) rather than by date, though a timeline would have been handy.

Swint was kind enough to  answer a few questions about the book:

KwP: If you were to be a king whisperer, which “king” would you want to whisper to?

KS: Maybe an American president, such as George Washington or Franklin Roosevelt.  But Saladin would also be an interesting choice.

KwP: Of the people you researched, who did you like the most?

KS: I developed a lot of respect for Saladin, K. Kamaraj of India and Sakamoto Ryoma of Japan.

Kerwin Swint

KwP: I found myself partial to Theodora of Byzantium. She starts out as a “dancer,” makes her way to Empress, and finally becomes a saint. It’s impressive. All of the whisperers had to be ruthless at times, even the more benevolent ones like Theodora. What does this say about leadership?

KS: Niccolo Machiavelli said that a “Prince” must at times learn how to be “not good” in order to do what is necessary to protect his kingdom and his people.  The survival and security of the leader is job number one.  

KwP: I wrote a book for Middle School students called BEING A LEADER AND MAKING DECISIONS which included people who lead by example, such as Mother Theresa, and Mohandas Ghandi. Can people like that ever be world leaders? Or are they too idealistic?
KS: I think so. Ghandi was very realistic and had great political insight.  Thomas Jefferson was an idealist to a degree.  But idealistic leaders need to be very grounded and stay in the “real” world.   
In books about history, THE KING WHISPERERS stands out for it’s attention to the behind-the-scenes details. And it makes me wonder about who’s whispering to whom in current events, and who the players are going to be in the future. Which also begs the question I know all of you are dying to find out: exactly what kind of king whisperer is Kate going to be to Wills? 😉

Please vote for my blog in the traffic-breaker poll for this tour. The blogger with the most votes wins a free promotional twitterview and a special winner’s badge. I want that to be me! You can vote in the poll by visiting the official King Whisperers blog tour page and scrolling all the way to the bottom.

The next word for the book give-away is VISIT. Learn more about the give-away and enter to win 1 of 3 copies on the official King Whisperers blog tour page. The other 2 copies are being given-away courtesy of the GoodReads author program, go here to enter. And don’t forget to stop by the Q&A with Kerwin Swint Group to discuss the King Whisperers (including questions from the official book club guide) the author, and his previous works.

Book Trailers for the King Whisperers:

Move over paper

Today is an exciting day. History was made. Again! And it’s great to live at a time that history is being made in huge ways. Is it because of technology?  The news about Bin Laden was widely shared first on Twitter. And when I read it on the New York Times, I could click on the link to the press conference the President gave about it, and email it to my mother.

President releases birth certificate

In the last week there has been so much interesting news, that it could almost make your head spin. So being able to parse all the information, to really understand it, to go in-depth the way you might want to, or skip over the stuff that you’re not that interested in, is a function of modern media, and new ways of disseminating information. And it’s why paper, as a technology for sharing information, is no longer the best platform.

I’m not going to insert an apology here about how much I love “real” books because it’s an insult to technology. eBooks, phones, and tablets are springboards with social networking providing the people power for how information is distributed. To believe differently, is to ignore the facts. Support for the Iran elections gained popularity on Twitter, with people showing solidarity by turning their avatars green. The White House Correspondence dinner was linked on Facebook (mostly the part where Seth Meyers insults The Donald’s “fox” hairdo).

Gore recording for OUR CHOICE the app.

It’s only a matter of time before paper goes the way of 8-track and cassette tapes not just for news, but for entertainment purposes as well. And if you don’t believe me, you only need to see what software developer Mike Matas of Push Pop Press did with Al Gore’s book, OUR CHOICE.

Don’t worry. It’s a good thing.

Al Gore: Earth’s friend or foe?

What I love about doing biographies is that the subjects cease being cardboard cutouts. Their complexities become apparent, sometimes endearing, and sometimes eyebrow-raising. And still, it’s impossible to really know them.

That was never more true than when I researched Al Gore last year for my latest biography.

Gore has the unfortunate lot of being polarizing. Nobody’s neutral about Gore. For many, he represents liberalism at its finger-waggingest, along with wealth, an ivy league education and political advantage. His father was a U.S. Senator and by all accounts, his mother groomed him almost from infancy for political office. He wasn’t dubbed the Prince of Tennessee for nothing. For others, Gore is a modern-day Cassandra, with both the foresight and the lengthy trail of disbelievers. He also represents crushed hopes in the form of the 2000 election.

The polarization surrounding him appear par for the course. I discovered a man whose life was a study in contrasts. He attended rural Tennessee schools and worked the land with farmhands, but also lived in a Washington hotel and attended exclusive private schools. The toughest contrast to reconcile was his unflinching fight for an environment free of toxins, while still advocating for tobacco farmers, even after losing his beloved sister to lung cancer.

Despite understanding what’s behind people’s feelings about Gore, I’m still not sure why his advocacy for the planet is received with such ire. Gore’s interest was piqued when he was a child, observing farmers’ conservation efforts, and then pushed further when his mother read him Rachel Carson‘s SILENT SPRING. By the time he arrived at Harvard and met Professor Roger Revelle, becoming a “conservation hero” was just a matter of time.

Gore has devoted a huge amount of time, resources and energy to educating people about environmental dangers, pushing legislation, and investing his own money in forward-thinking technology. Even if you don’t care for him personally, what’s the objection to a cleaner environment, and economically beneficial tech?

Gore’s not a perfect guy, but he’s no foe either.

Kids in charge

President Obama at a Maryland middle school in February

As we try to reform public education, a number of experts are weighing in about the best course of action. Is it getting rid of unions? Merit pay for teachers? Changing standards? Eliminating standardized tests? Overhauling the way that we teach? But as the discussion rages on among politicians and educators, there is one group of experts that no one seems to be consulting: the students themselves.

In my December post A failure of imagination, I was surprised at how many students responded to the topic. They mostly seemed exhausted, brow beaten and disappointed in their educational experiences, and that’s a shame. It is THEIR education. THEY are the ones most affected by education reform’s success or failure. People keep talking about their future, but leaving THEM out of it. Is it arrogance to assume that as adults we know better, or that student opinion doesn’t count? Because the evidence shows that when students are involved in creating their own educational experience, the results are overwhelmingly better than anything the adults have come up with.

Tracy Hahn-Burkett recently wrote about a group of primary school students in the UK who had their scientific study on bumblebee behavior published in a scientific journal. This was something they did at school under the guidance of their teacher and neuroscientist, Beau Lotto. It seems like an extraordinary endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be. The kids were interested. So they worked hard. And they learned far more than they would have if they were learning about bees from a textbook. And at the end of it, the accomplishment wasn’t a grade on a standardized test, it was a published study.

Similarly, a recent New York Times opinion piece by Susan Engel showed a group of High School students in Massachusetts who were allowed to design their own curriculum. Students who were considering dropping out, excelled. Good students remembered what they liked about school and did better. And even after returning to a “regular” curriculum, they are all still performing better than they were before.

Homeschooling parents know that you have to let kids pick their topics. Why can’t we apply the same sense to public schools? Even if it is one semester a year that students get to do their own thing, isn’t it worth it to allow them to have the choice? To excel? To have an experience that they couldn’t possibly get from a textbook? The elementary school kids from the UK were reminded that science was “cool and fun” and one of the students in Massachusetts said, “I did well before. But I had forgotten what I actually like doing.”

While the grownups worry about the money, and the politics, and the dropout rate, and the effectiveness of teachers, the kids are saying, why can’t you just listen to us?

And we should.

 

 

A failure of imagination

As a teacher and a mom, education is one of my primary concerns. So the recent scores released by PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) were disheartening to me. I’m not terribly surprised. I’ve been watching the American school system become bogged down with bad ideas, from extending the school day, to piling on meaningless homework, to eliminating anything creative in the curriculum, and let’s not forget the massive failure of innovation and sense that is the No Child Left Behind act.

Bloomberg article quoted that one of the advantages that better-performing countries had over the U.S. was that schools had more autonomy over their curriculum. It flies in the face of a national curriculum, which makes sense. It’s kind of like the government controlling how you run your own family. You’re better equipped to say what your family needs or doesn’t need, and schools should have the same advantage.

In my daughter’s school, the length of the day has been steadily increasing, as some subjects have become more disposable (Art, Spanish, Music) and still the scores have not been going up. What’s the answer to that? Increase the day some more. It’s like saying: Hey! This brand of manure hasn’t been growing my sunflowers. Know what I’m gonna do? Add more manure!

It’s a failure of imagination. No one has been able to come up with a decent idea to deal with the problem. And it’s also an indication of why the U.S. is behind in Science scores, because anyone with any kind of scientific training would know that when your hypothesis fails, you don’t keep adding minutes to the experiment. You begin again with a new idea.

I’ll be the first to admit that I thought a national curriculum was a good idea. I thought having across the board standards would eliminate the nonsense that is wealthy schools getting all the resources while inner-city schools get left in the dust. But clearly, the best thing is not a national curriculum, but distributing the education dollars appropriately. I also thought that smaller classes would be better, but that’s also proving to be wrong. Larger class sizes mean that teachers can be paid more, and higher-paid teachers is reportedly one of the reasons China’s educational system is number one.

So now that we have new information, let’s re-conceptualize our ideas about education. Longer days (more manure) isn’t cutting it. But a longer school year might help U.S. students catch up to everyone else.

Eliminating language classes in favor of other core subjects hasn’t helped. And what is the sense of eliminating languages when we know that the economy is now global? Speaking only one language is a huge disadvantage.

Innovation used to be a source of pride for the United States. Kitty Hawk, the Space Race. Think that can happen now that we’ve eliminated creative subjects like art from the curriculum and science is learned from a textbook rather than by having students theorize and experiment?

Giving schools the ability to control their own curriculum is going to be huge. Thematic learning where the math, science, social studies, reading, art, music, and language subjects were all about one thing works because each subject feeds on the others. The average person needs to hear something eight times before they remember it. So by integrating all the subjects, we’d maximize the ability of the students to master the material. Right now, with a different textbook for everything, it’s all disjointed. A longer day of scattershot learning is a giant waste of time and resources.

Now is the time to listen to people who actually know what they’re talking about, like Ken Robinson who describes how schools are killing creativity, or like Muhammad Yunus who prove that even old institutions and centuries-long ways of thinking can be successfully revamped. For Pete’s sake, let’s listen to a kid talk about what they need to grow.

What we’re doing clearly isn’t working. And I’m worried about the future of my children, and the future of all of us, if we’re led by dunces. Haven’t we had enough of that?

Rule-breaking librarians and the abusive patron who loves them

I love librarians who break the rules. LOVE!

For one thing, the librarians at my local branch, Englewood, never shush me when I’m loud, which is always, mainly because they’re pretty loud themselves, which is AWESOME. In fact my children and I are so spoiled that I fear going to any other library lest they muzzle us and forcibly remove us from the premises. (This almost happened once in Bergenfield. Relax, guys!)

They will also hold books for me a little longer than normal because they know I’m going to come in to get them EVENTUALLY and I have small children who are probably preventing me from getting there in a timely manner.

But mostly I love rule-breaking librarians because sometimes they let me keep renewing borrowed books past the time limit because they know I’m doing research, but they only renew the books if they haven’t been requested by anyone else, which is completely fair.

This has come in very handy while writing this Gore bio because I’ve had a number of his books out for a while. Tomorrow, three of them are due, and since I’ve already had them out for so long, I would be pretty ballsy to ask for yet another extension. And since I got an extra month from my editor, I actually could return them and then check them out again. But as we all know I’m trying to complete it in the original due date.

Plus it would be SO INEFFICIENT to return the books because the libraries would have to send them back to their local branches (none of them are from Englewood) and then they’d have to send for them all over again when I re-request them. SUCH A WASTE! Really, library I’m thinking only of YOU when I say, just let me renew these one last time. I swear, I won’t need them again.

PLEASE?

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