American Life

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Dear Dana, Romance Novelist

Microsoft in the 1990s: more multi-talented people per square inch than should’ve been geometrically possible.

Which was why Microsoft, not Disneyland, was “The Happiest Place on Earth.” (Except for the Internet Explorer team during the Netscape smack-down, which was “Divorce Court.”)

During those years, I worked with a ballerina marketing lead, a city councilman graphic designer, a Special Forces parajumper database admin (who would neither confirm nor deny), and a brass ensemble of program managers.

Not one, but two pro surfer finance analysts.

Channel sales bagpipers, who practiced after work in the parking garage, giving us a sense of what it must’ve felt like being a lowly British soldier hearing that music coming at you from over the next hill and knowing you were done for.

Then there was Dana, DDEE.

Database Darling and Editor Extraordinaire.

If I was writing the potentially Great American Novel, I’d want Dana to be the poor soul poring over my sorry manuscript because she is, hands down, the best editor I’ve ever worked with.

Ever.

Nowadays she’s Dana, BSRN.

Best-Selling Romance Novelist.

Romance novels just aren’t my thing at all, but it’s a literary fantasy world that’s wildly popular. To the tune of $1.36 billion per year popular.

That’s why some of my first Microsoft friends hatched this grand plan to pay off our student loans by writing romance novels on the side, since girls’ poker night with nickel stakes was going to take forever.

(The guys played with stock, which made them no-fun competitive whiners, so they were banned.)

Problem was, writing compelling, marketable romance novels is part art, part science, part Joy of Sex. There are people in this world who are really, really good at it, and consequently are very, very rich.

Then there’s us.

We just couldn’t figure out how to go about it. (I think the fact that we used a database schematic to map out potential characters and plot lines tells you everything you need to know.) The harder we tried, the more embarrassing it got and the more we laughed until we cried, which apparently with romance novels you’re supposed to do only while you’re reading one.

Eventually, we realized it was hopeless and good thing we had some unromantic skills and day jobs to fall back on.

We also realized why none of us had hot dates for the company Christmas party and that we’d probably have to go together as a group, wearing name tags saying “Romance Writing Failures.”

With the word “Writing” crossed out.

However, I’d heard somewhere that the best way to come up with character names for your romance novel was to pair names of your childhood pets with names of streets where you grew up.

My computation resulted in 4 admittedly promising romance novel personas ‒ Julius Nye, Crispin Victoria, Skipper Melrose, and the one-and-only (thank goodness) Bo Fremont ‒ whose lives ended before they began because I’d learned the hard way to leave fiction writing to the experts.

Allora, cara Dana, whose 4-part romantic suspense series “Blood and Honor” is set in Italy, about which I contributed the tiniest bit of background for book 1, Revenge: it’ll be a pleasure buy the first romance novel of my entire life because you’re a star in anyone’s book and I’d read anything you wrote on the back of a deposit slip.

Like many smart tech-savvy new authors these days, Dana bypassed the world of traditional publishing. Her story is a perfect example of why those dinosaurs are scared to death of self-publishers and e-books, namely the fact that writers aren’t much tempted anymore with measly offers to give them 40% of the profits when they can DIY with equivalent quality ‒ and smarter distribution ‒ and keep 100%!

Also, did you know that if you write a book series you have to sign over the rights to your series story line and characters to the publisher in advance?

According to Dana, let’s say after book #2 of your series goes to print, your publisher decides to dump you. You can’t just take books #3 and #4 to another publisher. The series just dies, unless you go to court to win the rights back…to your own series, which you created!

By the time your case has made its way through the legal system, the only thing you might accomplish after all those attorney fees is to pass those rights onto your novelist grandchildren.

Who, bad luck, might turn out to be commentator types like me and for everyone’s sake should stick with what we know.

Anyway, Dana proves that you don’t need an old-school publisher, who still hasn’t gotten over the Borders Books bankruptcy, to sell your paperbacks and e-books on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, let alone on Smashwords, Kobo, and Sony!

Dear Ms. Delamar, I’m a long-time fan. (20 years long.) Can I get an autographed copy on iTunes?

You can follow Dana on Facebook, @DanaDelamar on Twitter and at danadelamar.com.

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Clocks In at Christmas Headquarters, Alaska

Ironically, I took this job for the short commute.

Over the next month, I’ll travel over 15,000 miles/25,000 kilometers, helping Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Noel Baba, Święty Mikołaj, Chris Kringle, Père Noël, Daidí na Nollag, Babbo Natale, Agios Vassilis, Der Weihnachtsmann, and Father Christmas deliver delightful gifts to the people who’ve been very good all year and lumps of coal to the procrastinators and wishful thinkers ‒ you know who you are ‒ who’ve been very bad all year and are frantically trying to make up for it all in the last 4 weeks.

Good luck with that, say my North Pole colleagues.

This year’s gifts came off the elf assembly line days or weeks ago and are being loaded onto the sleigh as we speak. Next year, think ahead.

Although we all know Santa Claus normally delivers all his gifts on Christmas Eve, this year hit the North Pole hard financially ‒ hoping to “go green” this Christmas, Santa invested heavily in Solyndra ‒ and as a result had to lay off some of his toy-making and request management staff and was forced to outsource his distribution.

I outbid FedEx and ToysRUs and won the contract for 2011 holiday season, in part because I was already in Alaska for Thanksgiving and Santa didn’t have to pay for my relocation.

Bonjour! Jeanette here, newly hired Chief Transportation Officer and porte-parole du Père Noël. I’m Santa’s press secretary and ambassador-at-large for this holiday season.

And do I ever have my work cut out for me.

It’s painfully obvious that people have lost the Christmas spirit, and I’m not just talking about Christians. This black-hole world economy and world conflicts brewing far and near have made for a world-record-miserable year…

…and did I really sign up to get everybody back in the groove by December 25? I may have to give back my signing bonus.

But in what’s most likely blissful ignorance, I’m waxing the sleigh anyway, saddling up Rudolph ‒ that’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, for those of you who had perfectly happy childhoods without ever wearing battery-operated red blinking noses in school holiday music programs ‒ and ready to embark on a 6-country, 3-continent delivery route, trying to cover in 1 month just a small part of what Santa does in 1 night…or I’d try to pass over Nairobi, Auckland, and Santiago, too.

If this Christmas works out, maybe I’ll bid for a Southern Hemisphere route next year.

To any grownups who will admit to still believing that Santa is real, but especially pilot and engineer fans of this blog: we’ll have on board the latest stealth sleigh technology and top-flight, GPS-enabled reindeer. If and when we pass over your city, we’ll happily give you a test drive.

On the North Pole expense account.

So, with a quick stop at Union Square in San Francisco, California to light the Christmas tree and pick up some of those little blue boxes at Tiffany, we fly across the Atlantic to…

Make It a Double at the Chocolate Lounge

“I moved to Alaska for the sweets. The weather was a bonus.”

There’s this ever-cheerful, ever-helpful Pakistani taxi driver in Anchorage. Our whole family knows him, and his whole life story.

He practiced for the taxi license exam by driving around the city in a borrowed car, but his first fare asked to go to a city 1 hour away, to the one destination he’d never heard of. He has a bunch of kids, all of whom are fulfilling the American Dream by being brilliant students with promising careers.

He’s unfailing honest. This summer, a family friend, although he never knew that, left her expensive camera in his cab. A camera worth a couple months’ salary for him.

Of course he turned it in at the office.

But today is all about desserts and where to find them and I think he would’ve been thrilled to drive me around all day…paid in sugar!

I want to visit the best bakeries, candy stores, and ice cream establishments in downtown Anchorage, I said, so I can write about them for people who think Alaskans survive all winter on whale blubber.

He drove me immediately to 4th and G, where I started my field trip at the Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge. Which was almost a huge mistake because I almost didn’t finish this post.

(Which, if you’ve been following this blog for awhile, is borderline inexplicable because sweets don’t thrill me, especially chocolate. Go on, tempt me with a white-hot yellow curry with potatoes and fresh squid…)

The only way to shop for gifts at the Chocolate Lounge, I immediately realized, is to have a Mayan spicy hot chocolate and sit in one of those luxurious leather chairs and think about it for awhile.

A long while, depending on the weather: +8F/-13C and windy. (This can make a life-or-death difference. For example, today is -2F/-19C, but -26F/-32C wind chill.)

Which is what I did, sending my super-sweet sister a text that she could just pick me up at the Chocolate Lounge when her flight came in at 7:30pm.

Keep in mind it was only 1:30pm at the time.

As the owner is telling me they do chocolate and beer pairings for buyers of Anchorage Symphony season tickets, I’m trying to decide between the Murray salt/chai/orange/caramel, the 3-chili blend, the mulberry/goji berry/goldenberry, or the smoked salmon.

Alaska Wild Smoked Salmon 65% Cacao!

I ended up buying them all. So, those of you I’ll be seeing within the next month, sorry: your gifts are no longer a surprise.

It’s one block from the Chocolate Lounge to the Cake Studio, where they’ve painted a Julia Child quote on the wall: “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”

Julia and I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu 54 years apart, but some philosophies are burned into your brain with a crème brûlée torch and that’s one of them.

The Cake Studio at 4th and F caters to a much different constituency. In contrast to the Chocolate Lounge, where I was the sole customer for the first hour and subsequent customers sank into leather chairs beside me and settled in for the afternoon, too, the Cake Studio had a long line of people buying tea pots and frilly aprons for gifts and ordering custom cakes for upcoming events.

Based on the samples in the cold case, if you want a description-defying wedding cake that people would still be talking about at your 25th anniversary party, the Cake Studio is your mother ship.

You might’ve seen pastry Chef Will on the Food Network demonstrating some exotic dessert ‒ the Marsala mousse caught my eye ‒ but at heart he seems like a new classics kind of guy: carrot coconut cake, butter pecan croissants, and chocolate berry savarin, which amounts to a castle of berries on chocolate shortbread surrounded by this moat of chocolate ganache.

Hint: they’re open for breakfast and there’s no rule that says how breakfast is defined.

My last stop of the day, Moose à la Mode, is what you might think that you’d think when you thought about Alaska, but then you’d be wrong.

While it’s true you can order a scoop of your basic chocolate, peanut butter, and strawberry ice cream, or buy a greeting card that says “salmon: the fish that dies for love,” the real reason to go Moose à la Mode is to sit by the fireplace and buy or sell art.

Let’s say you’re an Alaskan painter, photographer, or wood/metal sculptor who sells works in the $300-$1,200 range and is looking to consign. Let’s also say your work is in demand as peace offerings, taken home by guilt-ridden fishermen who just spent $10,000 USD on a vacation they took without their wives or girlfriends.

Don’t think that cooler full of salmon is the gift!

Not needing any art bribes on this trip, I buy a hot green tea for the road and continue up 4th Street to Nane’s Pelmenis, where the smallest beef or potato Russian dumpling easily serves 2 people (and the owners are totally unapologetic about this), so you need to bring either a huge appetite or a friend. This comfort food immigrated to Alaska eons ago, providing some Native families with surnames like Pelisoff and Shurygin.

The hardest decision at Nane’s is between the rice vinegar and the red-hot pepper sauce, since you don’t have a choice about the avalanche of sour cream.

The only way to keep from falling asleep after a meal like that is to get back out in the cold. At Sourdough ‒ the people, not the bread ‒ Tobacco & Internet, my heart goes out to a group of young guys wearing business suits, dress shoes, and flimsy raincoats. They’re clearly not missionaries, so they must be interviewing for jobs at ConocoPhillips/BP.

Give ‘em a couple more days and they’ll be wearing mukluks at the Pioneer Bar next door, like people who know better.

The painting sitting to the left of the chocolate bars is a print of “Catch of the Day,” by the Alaskan artist (and my sister) Rebecca Hamon, 2005.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Tundra?

Because she’s Henrietta the Eighth, my great-niece’s great great great…niece.

Who lives in rural Alaska, where there aren’t many roads, and even fewer chickens.

At first, I wanted nothing to do with Henrietta the First. It’s no secret that I dislike birds anyway and no fowl related to me was going to be wearing diapers in the house. But to prove that you can find absolutely anything on YouTube, try searching on videos with step-by-step instructions on how to make diapers for chickens.

But once Henrietta the First started proving her worth ‒ in a reproductive sort of way ‒ I started to change my mind. Although admittedly my mind was going more toward Chicken Cordon Bleu, one recipe I can confirm is not taught at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

Henrietta the First started out as my niece’s school science project. Hatch the egg and watch it grow from a chick to a hen (or rooster). Learn responsibility by caring for the chicken: feeding it, watering it, providing shelter for it.

Which in Alaska is no small task, for any pet.

The chicken’s water freezes overnight. The chicken house insulation proves insufficient. Teenage chickens try to sneak out of the house after dark when the chicken house door freezes just slightly ajar and are held without bail under the kitchen counter while the deputy chef calls their parents.

So, Henrietta was Chicken Zero, from whom came chicken children and grandchildren, to the nth generation.

Being the family matriarch, a position of importance in bush Alaska society ‒ elders of both genders often receive gifts from the community for no particular occasion, but especially around this time of year ‒ saved Henrietta the First, who eventually died of natural causes, from ever “volunteering” for the chicken and dumplings, the chicken noodle soup, and the chicken fried steak (or is that steak fried chicken?)

But recently one of Henrietta’s offspring ‒ a rooster, not surprisingly ‒ went a bit too far and made a huge scratch down the side of my niece’s face (but luckily not poking her eye out), proving that little chickens, just like little people, hate going to bed and will fight you every step of the way.

My sister posted a photo of this injury on Facebook with the title “Revenge of the Chicken,” quickly comment by someone else: “Guess who’s for dinner!”

Who everyone did eat for dinner, except my niece, who refuses to eat anyone she knows.

Except for dogs, which besides companionship and tradition are essential for safety and sometimes transportation, Alaskans are pretty practical about animals. They’re on this earth for us to respect ‒ and in the wild are very much a part of Native religious beliefs ‒ but also to consume.

So, you look up from the king salmon fillet on your plate to the king salmon sculpture on your wall and don’t find this at all incongruous.

Everyone in Alaska admires moose and there’s endless art, literature, and song by Natives and non-Natives alike about these magnificent, intimidating, and ‒ make no mistake ‒ dangerous animals.

Moose basically own the place and go wherever they want, whenever they want. Click here for the Anchorage Moose Cam and see the “Moose of the Moment!”

Don’t be surprised if you walk out of baggage claim at ANC and while you’re waiting for your hotel shuttle see a moose on the island road divider right across from you, munching on grass. Some family friends were making breakfast one morning, only to look over and see a moose trying to stick his head through the kitchen window.

And finding his antlers weren’t a good fit, which was too bad, because breakfast was smelling really good. It’s no accident that the most popular children’s book in Alaska is called If You Give a Moose a Muffin…

Or, check out a photo taken on my Blackberry last night, of a moose knocking on a neighbor’s door where we’re staying (while my niece and nephew are in town to compete in the state swim meet). Guess he didn’t read the sign that says “No Solicitations.”

Anyway, those very same moose-loving Alaskans will spend days trekking and flying in unpleasant weather ‒ although my brother-in-law insists there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes ‒ looking for moose and, if they’re lucky and find one, won’t hesitate to shoot him (by law, it’s always a male), bring him home, and put every bit to a useful purpose.

You’ll hear more from, and about, Mr. Moose another day. Right now, let’s talk about Halibut Quiche with Garlic-Citrus Garnish.

Henrietta 1, Halibut 0.

Penn State Program, Perfect for Pedophiles

“Anytime you hear the number of children who come forward in an abuse case with this much history, add a 0 to get the real number of victims.”

That’s what the district attorney told me in 1994 when I was a witness set to testify in a case much like this one.

If the formula holds true for former Penn State University football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, long-time friend and one-time heir apparent of fired coach and chief enabler Joe Paterno, we’re talking not about 8 victims, but 80.

Maybe more. Maybe many more.

Because in just 4 days since Sandusky’s arrest, the number of known victims has more than doubled, from 8 to 17. (Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly is urging other unidentified victims to come forward.)

You do the math.

Considering Sandusky began coaching at Penn State in 1969 and established his own “charitable” foundation 8 years later, he’s had more than 40 years of unfettered access to ‒ and unquestioned authority over ‒ 1,000s of young boys.

The Second Mile Foundation, whose ironic tag line is “providing children with help and hope,” is a state-wide organization serving 100,000 children.

It’s clear from the grand jury testimony that Sandusky used his foundation to meet and cultivate victims, who he then betrayed in the worst possible, permanently damaging way.

If you think reading the indictment is hard, imagine living through it.

Sandusky feels “terribly depressed, terribly distraught” by the situation in which he’s found himself, claims his attorney, who’s drinking the Kool-Aid already because the only thing child abusers are ever distraught about is getting caught.

Penn State president Graham Spanier, who’s just been fired (and frankly that seems insufficient punishment), called the allegations against Sandusky “troubling.”

Troubling.

It’s well documented that pedophiles choose careers that give them access to kids. It’s a bonus if those kids are disadvantaged and vulnerable, seeking love and approval from a father figure otherwise missing in their lives.

In 1977, Sandusky founded The Second Mile Foundation, first as a group foster home ‒ another favorite career choice of child molesters ‒ to help “troubled boys” from troubled families.

A cruel recipe for disaster.

Because being a “beneficiary” of The Second Mile Foundation’s “generosity” cost these boys their bodies and hearts and futures. And the best Penn State officials could do was to take away Sandusky’s locker room keys?

And report the crimes to…Sandusky’s own charity?

This timeline of events and cast of characters amply demonstrates how many missed opportunities there were over many years to put Sandusky behind bars. For preying on victims as young as 7 or 8.

2nd and 3rd graders. Foster children, who drew the short straw in life to begin with.

People who shield predators try to characterize ‒ in an attempt to minimize ‒ child molestation as just “bothering,” or “overly affectionate,” or in this case “horsing around,” which implies the child consented to “play.”

Probably ill advised, but not devastating. Kids are resilient. Prioritize the family man whose career and reputation I risk if I say anything.

It’ll probably get messy. I’d rather not get involved.

This all causes seriously psychological damage to the child. But add extreme violence and you add even more crimes, especially if the child is under 13 (in some states under 14, or 14-15).

An adult male pinning a child 1/3 of his weight, only 10 years old, against a shower wall and sodomizing him is brutal RAPE.

Here are the penalties in Pennsylvania for sexual assault. Jerry Sandusky should’ve faced these charges almost 10 years ago. Given the timeline, much longer ago than that.

Joe Paterno and his wife Sue have 5 children and 17 grandchildren. If any of them had been rape victims, every police officer and FBI agent in Pennsylvania would’ve descended on Happy Valley within minutes.

But this was somebody else’s child, a nobody who didn’t matter. And of course he would never tell on his idol, or if he ever did, wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Thus, Joe’s precious football program, precious corporate sponsorships, and precious coaching legacy were safe.

It’s telling that Paterno continues to talk about My Goals and “one of the greatest sorrows of My Life.” Me, Me, Me. Or, Me and Penn State.

“I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this University.” No sincere wish to help the children whose lives he knowingly let his protégé ruin by his selfish silence.

Maybe “we ought to say a prayer for them (the victims).” If I can take time away from worrying about what’s going to happen to Me, now that I’m no longer coach of Penn State’s illustrious football program that I built, and that made me untouchable.

As for the 2 Penn State officials, athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, senior VP for business and finance (and holding on to his $70 million plus annual revenue for dear life), who are now charged with failure to report a crime and committing perjury before the grand jury, you’re despicable. You should be charged with criminal conspiracy, along with Paterno and everyone else who knew about these crimes against children and did nothing.

And, worse than doing nothing, covered it up.

Sandusky, Curley, and Schultz will find out in prison exactly what it feels like to be the one pinned to the shower wall and brutalized, helpless and alone.

But the person I hold most in contempt, though, is Mike McQueary, the man on the scene in the Penn State locker room in 2002 ‒ an eyewitness, rare in rape cases involving children, according to this same district attorney ‒ who didn’t intervene to stop the crime in progress, didn’t call the police, didn’t even have the decency to get medical attention for the young boy afterwards.

According to his own grand jury testimony, McQueary walked in on the attack in the showers and both the victim and the rapist saw him clearly.

McQueary looked the 10-year-old boy right in the eye and, rather than help him, allowed the rape to continue and ran away in a panic…

…then, instead of 911, called Dad for advice?!

So what if McQueary was a graduate assistant with no power, terrified of Joe Paterno and the consequences of ratting out Joe’s friend Jerry. He was a 28-year-old man! He wasn’t a boy in elementary school, like the victim.

(Why is Penn State letting McQueary coach next Saturday against Nebraska? FIRE him already.)

Adults have rights in this world. They have money and resources. They are believed by the authorities.

They can drive!

Even if no-one calls 911 during the assault, adults at least have the chance to get away from their attackers and drive themselves to safety at a hospital or police station.

What happened to this young boy afterward? Did he have to wait outside the gym by himself for someone to come pick him up, while Sandusky walked by on his way to the parking lot and laughed at him?

Or did he, like another victim we’ve learned about, have to ride in the car while his abuser drove him home…

…acting like it was just another ordinary day?

It’s All Greek To Me

“Another American Tanks World Markets”

I made up this headline from the G20 summit in Cannes, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it on somebody’s front page this week, alongside “George, Of All The Bonehead Moves…”

Not many Americans outside the Midwest know this about Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou: “Giorgakis” (Little George) is from…St. Paul, Minnesota!

That’s why, when economic austerity measures required for the initial 110€ billion bailout were implemented in May, Greek protesters yelled, “George, go home!”

Please don’t.

We already have too many politicians in office who are willing to rack up huge government bills as long as it panders to their own constituents, then are equally willing to risk our country’s debt default to save their own careers.

Some of these politicians are even from Minnesota, Michele (Bachmann).

In a perfect example of nepotism gone wrong, this 3rd-generation Greek Prime Minister single-handedly sent the global financial markets into a tailspin on Monday by announcing a referendum on the EU and IMF bailout that took months of maneuvering, cajoling, begging, threatening, and pleading to finalize…

…and Greece was lucky to get, and arguably didn’t deserve.

On the eve of the G20 summit, George drops a bomb: he wants the Greek people to vote on whether to accept the billions of free money in part 2 of the biggest bailout in the history of bailouts: valued at 130€ billion this time, with 50% debt forgiveness, orchestrated by Greece’s Eurozone neighbors, at no small financial and political cost to themselves.

Which we now want to “choose” after the fact, because we hate it that this free money is contingent on us doing stuff we should be doing anyway, and I’ve had a hard time explaining these austerity measures to the Greek public without looking like I’m part of the problem, which I am.

Which proves, Eurofriends, that no good deed goes unpunished.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy says Greece should never have been admitted to the Eurozone in the first place. True. Yet here they are, ungratefully so, forcing the Eurozone to contemplate a painful divorce, minimally a legal separation with endless alimony and child support.

But Papandreou’s referendum had a predictably short shelf life.

Recap of the France/Germany G20 dress-down: let’s be perfectly clear, George, we’re not paying another red cent of the debt you racked up from years of riotous living ‒ that Greece blatantly lied about to the Eurozone, by the way ‒ until you agree to the austerity measures set forth in the 26 October agreement.

Of course the austerity measures are harsh, George. They’re meant to be. It’s the only way Greece has any chance of getting its fiscal house in order, and the only way we can try to ensure you don’t suck the rest of the Eurozone into your black hole.

Only in your dreams could you cash that mid-November bailout installment check you can’t live without, while simultaneously holding the Eurozone hostage with your “sometime next year” referendum.

George the American is a gambling man who doesn’t know when to fold ‘em (and may well lose tomorrow’s confidence vote because of it).

Who knows perfectly well that tax increases are key to Greece’s austerity plan, yet shies away from his responsibility to tell the voters plainly. Who was willing to risk the stability of the Euro, and by extension another global recession, to make a point.

Sound familiar? It’s like George never left St. Paul.

Pick a Vowel, Any Vowel

It’s fall quarter at Stanford and time to get back on the bicycle. (Only if you’re in Egypt or the Gulf is it time to get back in the camel races.)

Because if, between coursework and independent study, you’re already a fair way through Volume I of Al-Kitaab, the standard series of university textbooks for Arabic language and literature, it’s time to embrace the trinity.

The Three Vowels.

When I first learned that Arabic had only 3 vowels, I rejoiced…for about 3 seconds. I’ve learned the hard way that when it comes to foreign languages, there’s always a catch…that catches you sooner or later.

That’d be sooner, if you’re reading aloud.

Reading aloud in Arabic is much like sight-reading a new piece of music: at some point, you have to stop tentatively tip-toeing around sotto voce and have the confidence to pick a note, any note, and commit to it.

Let’s consider the name of the city of Homs, Syria. I’ve already written about Homs, the home city of Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad’s family and one of the epicenters of the freedom and democracy movement that began on March 15. Sadly, I can also name the top 10 most dangerous neighborhoods ‒ dangerous for protesters ‒ in this city of over 1 million.

(As I write this, the Syrian military is pounding Homs, with nail bombs on the ground and shelling from the air, to punish them for demonstrating ‒ 20,000 strong ‒ after Friday prayers, in favor of a no-fly zone they never wanted to have to ask for. But Assad just keeps on killing them, as military aircraft hover low over the Baba Amro neighborhood, terrorizing residents and randomly striking their homes.)

In Arabic, you write Homs with 3 letters, all consonants: حمص (ha, mim, sad). On maps of Syria and in the media, you’ll see this transliterated as Homs, Hums, or even Hims.

Which seem to me 3 very different vowels, but what do I know?

Examiners in Arabic, trying to place your level of proficiency, inquire whether you can read in Arabic, no matter how slowly (you have no idea), if the words are “properly voweled.” Those pronunciation notations, called diacritics, are commonly left out and eventually you’ll know what’s missing (doubtful, but OK).

But once I began to pronounce Arabic myself, with meaning, not just as a mimic of proper diction, I got the same sense as when I first learned French and Italian: the world’s most beautiful and poetic languages unfold like flowers.

So, you can be content reading Arabic silently in the Stanford library, or eavesdropping on other peoples’ conversations in Middle Eastern cafés…

(Except for the café down the street, run by these Egyptian guys who told me, when I tried talking to them: “Oh, Arabic is too hard for us. We prefer English.” I’m going to tell your mothers you said that.)

…or you can take a breath and give it your best guess. Once you do, 2 things will happen: you’ll get immediate, positive feedback and you’ll wonder why you didn’t say something sooner.

Because Arabic speakers love to talk. To anyone and everyone. About anything and everything.

For ever and ever.

One of the funniest stories I’ve heard in a long time was from a friend who does business in Iraq. Where 1-hour conference calls turn into 4-hour marathons, what between the ancient communications infrastructure – you think AT&T constantly drops calls! – and the apparently national compulsion to go on and on about…feelings!

This, from political appointees in the Iraqi Ministries of Health and Commerce!

“Feelings, oooooooooohhhhhhhhhh feelings…” Makes perfect sense that insufferable 1970s ballad would be a hit in Baghdad, but even their fellow Middle Easterners draw the line at Perry Como.

I don’t think I have any feelings in Arabic yet, except deep appreciation for native speakers and their (very kind but) undeserved compliments, which I gladly accept about anything except my cooking.

Inevitably, by this time somebody’s already cooked something for me, so when I’m grilled about my feelings, I can claim for at least an hour that – so sorry – I’m chewing.

Pronounced “mmmmmmmmmm,” no vowels required.

Comfort Me With Apples

This post was originally about apples. The fruit.

I had it all written, including the title, and was just about to publish it when I read that Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, had died.

When you live in Palo Alto, California, where every apple is an Apple, many of your neighbors are famous people who have bank accounts with lots of zeros.

Who also have cars that break down at inopportune times, toddlers with loud and public tantrums, and historic homes with decks that rot clear through and anybody know a good contractor?

Sometimes I’d see Steve Jobs and his wife walking in the neighborhood, along the boulevard under the canopy of trees. Steve, who had the astounding talent and vision to co-found a billion-dollar technology company named after his favorite fruit, was a husband and father of 4.

Whose family could use some comfort food today of all days.

If I were a Jobs family friend, I’d bring what I brought another grieving family on another rainy October day: pumpkin curry apple soup topped with a swirl of sour cream and grated nutmeg, and cheddar cheese soup topped with grated apple and fresh ground pepper.

Loaves of bread, still warm from the oven.

(I use grated apple in fall in the same places I use grated cucumber in summer: as a soup garnish, sandwich filler, and salad and salad dressing staple.)

Following comfort with comfort: baked apples.

Baked apples are also very useful if your house is for sale and you haven’t had many interested buyers in this recession. Chocolate chip cookies say you’re desperate, fish fillets say you secretly don’t want to move at all, but baked apples remind people of holidays at grandma’s house.

Or, as in my case, grandma’s dockside studio apartment.

Choose apples that are slightly to very tart, with firm flesh, and flat on the bottom so they stand up by themselves. Core, but don’t peel. My auto-pilot, über-comfort filling is a syrup made of salted butter, brown sugar, chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts), dried fruit (raisins, cherries, cranberries), and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice).

Then spoon the leftover syrup over the tops of the apples and let it drizzle down the sides.

If opening the oven door during your open house makes buyers swoon, imagine if you just happened to have picnic ware and whipped cream on hand!

You can also core and fill tart apples with wedges of sharp cheddar cheese, or put the cheese underneath the crust of your apple pie. (The secret to that illusive flaky pie crust? Ice water.) While your pie is baking, ponder apple butter, caramelized apples and sweet onion sauté, and North Carolina-style apple crisp, with walnuts and bourbon.

I hope Jobs family friends are bringing over comfort foods like this today, mourning a man who accomplished so much in 56 years, yet still had decades of brilliant ideas left to show us.

Had Steve grown up with his American birth mother and Syrian birth father, university students who gave him up for adoption, he might’ve been called Steve Jandali. Thus, Syrians are proud of him today, and as in awe of his talent as we all are, but posted this sobering reflection on social media from their iPhones:

How many Syrian children have died, or will die, in our quest for freedom and democracy, who could’ve grown up to be another Steve Jobs?

Somewhere there’s a kid who will bring his or her inventions to life for us, creating products that change our daily lives in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. No-one ‒ not repressive governments, not well-meaning naysayers ‒ can halt technological progress.

And that, my dear Apples, is a comfort.

“What a healthy out-of-door appetite it takes to relish the apple of life, the apple of the world, then!” Henry David Thoreau, from Wild Apples.

The Cheeseburger Primaries

“I weigh too much because I eat too much,” he said. “And I eat some bad things, too.”

Finally, some honesty in politics!

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, less than 6 feet tall and ‒ I’m guessing here ‒ 350 pounds on a good day, is being courted to add some ballast to the GOP presidential race, since Mitt Romney is a competent bore and Rick Perry is a disaster-in-waiting and the rest of the field isn’t even worth mentioning, except former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who’s far too moderate and has far too global a perspective to win the Republican nomination.

As if those were bad things.

Chris Christie and his oversized approval rating would be a Democrats’ nightmare largely ‒ see? already I can’t help it ‒ because he’s a biiiiiiiiiiiiiig…personality who’d look like the protective big brother of little brother Barack, who’s less than half his size, from being bullied on the school playground.

I’d want Governor Christie on my side, too, just not literally. Can’t you just picture him coming down the airplane aisle toward you and your heart sinking, knowing that ‒ Murphy’s Law ‒ he’ll be sitting in the middle seat next to you and wanting to put the armrest up?

Like you’re really gonna tell Tony Soprano’s elected representative that he should’ve bought an extra seat.

Although even Governor Christie himself makes jokes about “throwing his weight around,” and imagine how many more writers would gladly “weigh in” over the next 13 months if he ran for president, chronic obesity is a very serious health risk, not to mention an incredibly poor example to our nation of 30% obsese children and adolescents, according to the CDC.

I’d hate to see Christie undermine First Lady Michelle Obama’s healthy food campaign for kids, and kids physical fitness standards championed by none other than his former fellow Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger!

When Christie was in the hospital in July due to his chronic asthma, more than one journalist stated the obvious: “Will his weight sink his presidential bid?”

…or tragically leave his 4 children without a father and the Tea Party at the rudder?

We’ve seen this culinary vice in the Oval Office before. While we questioned Bill Clinton’s bad taste in women, we secretly sympathized with his bad taste in food because most of us have, at one time or another, lost control of our cars while driving past In-N-Out Burger and suddenly found ourselves ordering a Mustard-Grilled off the Secret Menu.

Granted, no paparazzi followed us around afterwards, taking unflattering photos of us in our running shorts and plastering them on the front page of the Washington Post.

There was something ‒ dare I say, loveable? ‒ about a world leader who, during his first term in office, incurred the annual wrath of Commander Somebody, M.D. at the Bethesda Naval Hospital over steak fries and chocolate malts.

That same Presidential physician would take one look at Chris Christie and go into cardiac arrest.

However, remember that immediately following the Cheeseburger-in-Chief, we elected a skinny guy who got straight As at Bethesda and went to bed at 9pm.

And look where that got us.

Even though I feel confused by Bill Clinton the Disciplined Vegan, A Shadow of His Former Self, every once in awhile he channels his inner cheeseburger and says something like he did during the debt ceiling standoff: “Mr. President, if I were you, I’d invoke the 14th amendment right now and dare the Tea Party to take me to court.”

And telling people where to get off sure seems like a New Jersey specialty.

While I like Governor Christie’s views on education and green energy, I disagree with him on many other issues and fear most of all his dangerously nonexistent foreign policy experience.

No, Chris, it’s not our eternal destiny to be the world’s policeman.

Here’s my bare minimum Presidential candidate bar:

I give you a blank piece of paper. On it, you draw a map of the Middle East and North Africa, marking every border, country, capital, and major geographic landmark. Next, you write down leadership names, types of government, primary industries, and the top 3 issues facing each country today. Last, I want to know whether each country is, is not, or ever has been an ally of the United States, and why.

Extra points if you can describe in detail the mix of religions; minus points if you call Iran an Arab country!

If I can do all of this without much difficulty (and I’m not running for leader of the free world), then so should you.

But I can’t argue with Christie on budget negotiations, during which Congress acts like all people do on crash diets: rude and not in the mood. However, “to make (a) budget deal, you must get (the) leadership talking in one room.”

Governor, I’d like to offer an amendment: lock the door from the outside. Nobody goes home until you have a deal. That means eating Chinese takeout and wearing dirty clothes. The real reason it took so long to get a deal in August was that the leadership let people go home to Georgetown and take showers.

The American people instruct and empower our President: turn up the pain machine on our employees in Congress to, as Governor Christie put it, “finish this off.”

…or somebody might finish you off, President Obama, come November 2012 and Chris Christie just might be the guy who brings home the bacon for the Republican party.

According to Chris Christie, this country is “thirsting” (and maybe hungering, too) “for…someone of stature and credibility” to deal with crises. To “find principled outcome where people are also compromising.”

Now I’ll take an extra helping of that.

What’s Really at Stake With Back to School

Everybody gets extra credit this year…in politics.

In Tacoma, the 3rd-largest school district in Washington state, USA, 1,900 public school teachers are on strike and have defied a court order to return to work. They’ve delayed the start of the new academic year for 28,000 students over unresolved contract disputes including pay, class size, and seniority-based job reassignments.

The teachers union may or may not have the right to strike, said a judge today, but the public generally agrees that teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated. Class size is a problem nationwide, despite us continually voting to tax ourselves to fix this. (Am I the only one wondering where all that money went?)

While some parents and students support teachers to continue negotiating while school is open, teachers aren’t getting universal sympathy for an all-out strike this time around.

From reading the local press lately and knowing how prior Seattle-area teachers strikes went down, it’s much the same conflicted thinking. Some are sympathetic to teachers and feel like they’ve been pressured and ignored one too many times. Others think teachers should be thankful they have jobs in this recession and need to share the pain of state budget cuts. Some worry about classes cutting into 2012 summer vacation, disrupting family and child care plans.

Meanwhile, no learning is happening, except learning that some adults, after having the whole summer off, don’t have to go back to work in September if they don’t feel like it, and they’ll probably still get paid. Hey, I want that job!

Teachers counter that if they cave in to school district demands, their complaints will never be resolved. Could be true. But if they make the strike long enough and painful enough, they will be. Hard to say.

Some students think teachers should grow up. Teachers think the school district should grow up. Here’s a thought: maybe you both need to grow up.

Tacoma teachers, it’s worth thinking globally: are your issues are so important to you to voice publicly and demand change that you’d still be willing to go on strike if you knew it meant risking being fired on by security forces? Or attacked with tear gas? Or imprisoned and tortured?

Then imagine you’re not an adult teacher. Imagine you’re an elementary school student striking in front of your school in Ghutta, Homs, Syria, with siblings in high school doing the same thing, and your parents wholeheartedly supporting you all, striking like this.

Telling observation from a Homs activist: “We grew up repeating every morning in school the famous slogan ‘Our leader forever, the comrade Bashar al Assad’ (or his father when he was alive). Most of us used to say it automatically without even realizing what we are saying. It was a form of indoctrination. Today, the students chanted ‘Freedom’ in many schools across Syria.”

(Students in Hama are taking it one step further, as Hama is famous for doing, and burning the indoctrination books.)

Unlike democracies, where different points of view are welcome, even encouraged, dictatorships ‒ with which Americans in our generation thankfully have no personal experience ‒ rely on fear, plus a potent mixture of hero worship, humiliation, mutual suspicion, and inability to picture things any way than how they are today…until the Arab Spring comes along in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and not-quite-Yemen and you began to realize the freedoms and opportunities you’ve been missing out on all this time.

Fast-forward to Homs in September 2011 and there, as in Damascus, Hama, Idlib, and Deir ez Zor provinces, this familiar student refrain is driving Bashar al-Assad and his Dictator of Education completely crazy: from Zamalka, Damascus, “No studying and no teaching until the fall of the President!”

Now that’s what I call an intractable union demand.

Demographics drives this reality. While birth rates in Europe have dropped off precipitously and the American Baby Boomer generation is set to retire, causing Social Security and Medicare costs to soar, over 40% of the Syrian population is under 18.

That’s almost 9 million young people who certainly aren’t going to vote for anybody named Assad. So best to make sure they never get a chance to vote.

On the first day of school, September 18, schools were nominally open, but attendance across Syria was sparse, to say the least. Some teachers didn’t show up at all. Kids who weren’t protesting were being kept at home by parents as a protest against the regime, or for their safety.

No argument about class sizes here.

Instead of cracking the books, look at what Syrian school kids were doing instead: stomping on a photo of Bashar’s face, burning it, then tearing it up and throwing away the pieces!

Same sentiment in Kanaker, where students shout right into the camera, “No studying until the regime falls!” Then, without warning, the security forces fire on the school children (in Qusayr, SW of Homs).

Sigh. This is going to be a long, sad school year.

Ironically, students might end up at school another way…because their classrooms are now prisons for protesters who’ve been arrested. Children, their teachers, and their parents might end up in class together.

In Al-Kiswah, about as pastoral as it gets 13 kilometers/6 miles south of Damascus, students’ banners read: ”This is my school. Its chairs became confession chairs. My father, brother, and cousin, all of them were beaten here.

How can I go to school before we topple the regime?”

Those same fathers, brothers, and cousins ‒ 3,000 in all ‒ who’d demonstrated the day before school started.

Including one father who said, “We want freedom even if we have to keep our demonstrations going for years, not only 6 months. We have nothing to lose if we are ready to sacrifice our lives

(notice, not our salaries, our seniorities, our work environments)

…the most precious thing we have.”