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MODEL UNITED NATIONS

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For nearly a decade I sponsored the Model United Nations at Ramstein American High School on Ramstein Air Base in Germany. MUN was an important element in the educational program at most of the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) in Germany.

MUN is quite simply one of the best educational programs—EVER! (However, in the interest of fairness, I must admit that the Model Senate programs in many schools is similar.)

The title MUN is self-explanatory. Students represent countries and organizations of the United Nations in a mock conference. In order to do so, they must research everything about their assigned country or organization: geography, culture, politics, relations with neighbors and the world at large—everything and anything that will help them truly identify with “their” country.

Even as they are gathering information on the assigned country, they are also researching issues and determining how officials of “their” country would regard such and such an issue. Having to put themselves in others’ shoes for a time is often eye-opening. (Yes, I know that’s a mixed metaphor, but it works.) I doubt many former MUN students view the world with the kind of absolutist view we see so often in public discourse these days. Imagine the perspective gained by American teenagers thinking like Ukrainians or Russians regarding the Crimea!

The U.N. itself publishes materials on hot topics for each year’s studies, but it is up to the students to go beyond those sources—and beyond Wikipedia. Enterprising students often write letters to officials of the countries they represent or visit embassies and consulates if they can.

Students must then write resolutions and position papers and be prepared to argue effectively in a formal debate the position of, say, China on air pollution or Iran on nuclear proliferation. And they do so most enthusiastically. Role-playing allows them to understand another’s position, even if they themselves could never endorse it.

I think you probably already see the educational value of this program. It improves research techniques, writing skills, and leadership skills—all of which carry over to other academic areas.

THIMUN is the acronym of The Hague International Model United Nations which meets for a week-long conference every January in The Hague, The Netherlands. About 3,000 students, aged 15-21, from schools all over Europe and beyond, meet to resolve international problems. The operative language is English as most of the delegates are from American international schools, but those schools often have students from their local populations as well. (Today’s king of The Netherlands was once a THIMUN delegate.) The tone truly is international.

The thrill of getting a resolution passed is not unlike the thrill of winning a tennis match or a cross-country race.

More next time . . .

PC PRONOUNS (A WRITER’S DILEMMA)

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While I fully understand and endorse the modernists’ wish to be gender neutral in writing about general topics, I sometimes find their efforts to be politically correct so annoying that I lose interest in the points they are trying to make.

For example: A writer’s primary goal is to communicate clearly. He or she strives to present his or her information precisely in order to be sure his or her reader will “get” exactly what he or she is offering him or her. OK. I made up this ludicrous exaggeration, but I think you get the picture.

I recently read an otherwise quite useful book—on writing, yet!—in which the author attempted to solve the problem by using s/he. I found that slash thing even more irritating than having those pronouns spelled out—and somewhat pretentious at that. In discussing the possibility of writer’s being interviewed on television or radio as part of a book promotion, she (the author was, indeed, female) wrote this gem:

Don’t expect the host to make you look good. S/he wants to look good. It’s his bread and butter.

The word host is clearly masculine, and the writer acknowledges that fact in “his bread and butter.” So what the devil is the point of that distracting S/he in the second sentence? Other than wanting to impress her reader with her own grasp of what is and is not PC?

Teachers of English grapple with this issue all the time. A possible solution may be to use second person (you), but formal discourse is rarely presented in second person. Or, one may use the distancing one, only to find the problem cropping up later: Is that one a he or a she, a him or a her? I used to advise my students to use the third person plural forms (they, them, their) as a possible solution—but to guard against illogical problems in agreement (e.g., “a writer wishes to entertain and inform their reader”).

English is such a versatile language that there is almost always another way to phrase an idea.

THE POLARIZATION OF AMERICA

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Perhaps I’m just an old curmudgeon looking at the past through rose-tinted bifocals, but I honestly do not remember a time when America was as polarized as it is today. Well . . . maybe when we were all either protesting the Vietnam War or arguing the dangers of the “domino theory.”

But that was one issue. Today it seems we see public discourse on all issues only in stark absolutes (and at a high decibel pitch!). No wonder we’ve had nothing but gridlock in Washington for nearly two decades now. And God forbid that an “opinion”—whether expressed on Facebook or on the floors of Congress—should be supported by statistical or anecdotal evidence! This is a democracy. All opinions have equal value. Moreover, they are invariably expressed as absolute truths. No room for discussion. No admission that there might—possibly—be alternative views of such evidence as is (rarely) presented. My way or the highway. That’s it! Take it or leave it.

Consider the issue of guns, for instance. WHY do some insist that any attempt to curb unlimited access to firearms is a red flag signaling that “they” want to seize all weapons and deny “your God-given right” to own one or several? (The right was not “God-given” at all; it was ensured by men, but that is beside the point.) Why can we not have reasoned discussions of this issue and put some reasonable guidelines in place?

Hunters and collectors—actually anyone who wants them—are entitled to their weapons! But, is it really too much to ask that legitimate ownership of firearms be granted on the basis of background checks and passing safety courses? True: Regulations would not give us a magical solution. (We license autos and drivers, but drunk drivers kill thousands every year.) Still, it would probably help. It is not an either/or situation. Just how many Columbines, Auroras, and Newtowns do we need?

Or take the issues of abortion, planned parenthood, and women’s healthcare in general. I fail to see the logic in closing down clinics because some among us believe that “life” is viable the instant that sperm wiggles its way into the wall of that egg. By all means, let us worry about this petri-dish stage of “life” more than the quality of life that will eventually ensue—or more than the quality of the life of the woman involved.

I would be far more sympathetic to the anti-abortionists’ views if more of them showed genuine concern for the lives of those they seek to “save.” That means ensuring proper feeding, clothing, health care, and education as well as merely breathing. Anti-abortion vs. pro-choice: the issue is too complex for the oversimplified, absolutist views in which it is often couched.

Or, take immigration, race relations, the Middle East, stem-cell research—you name it! “Us” versus “them”—how’s that been working so far in the body politic? Gridlock, anyone?

We need to get back to compromise as one of the basic tenets of the American system. But that would require listening to, trying to understand others’ points of views. Too few of us are capable of such a profound degree of tolerance.

DONALD TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT????

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TrumpYou gotta be kiddin’ me!!!!!

Just look at some of the things he said in that trumped-up announcement—complete with paid actors to cheer his idiocy.  (Yes, inane pun intended.)

I’m really rich.

Well, goody for you, Donald.

So you will try to buy your way into the White House. The influence of money on American politics is one of the most despicable aspects of the system, whether the money comes from an immensely rich individual engaged in self-promotion or from those buying influence—and access—through Political Action Committees. How many truly good potential leaders are precluded from even thinking of running in this dollar-driven nomination process?
Aristocratic elites though most of them were, I seriously doubt the founding fathers had this situation in mind when they drafted the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the Constitution. And I do wonder if the Supreme Court Justices who gave us that infamous Citizens United decision are still proud of what they did? Corporations as people, indeed!

I will build a great, great wall on our southern border.

Oh, yeah. That’ll work.

Walls—from those surrounding ancient and medieval cities to notable ones such as the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, and, in recent times, the Berlin Wall—walls are made to be breached. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . .” And human ingenuity being what it is, they almost always are breached. Besides, can the Donald simply wave a magic wand to deal more efficiently with those miles and miles of coastline? Maybe build great walls in the oceans at the twelve-mile mark?

I have a plan to deal with ISIS.

Oh, really?

This claim is eerily reminiscent of Nixon’s claim in 1968 to have a “plan” for dealing with the debacle in Vietnam. Turned out there was no such plan at all. It was mere bloviating hot air on the campaign trail. In other words, it was a lie.
Of all the things Trump said, this was the most pernicious. He has a plan, but he won’t share it until after January 20, 2017? How many people (including American military people) must die in the meantime? I would suggest that IF he really has workable plan, he’d not only be a shoo-in for the Republican nomination, but for the Nobel Peace prize, and probably sainthood as well!

ABUSE/MISUSE OF LANGUAGE

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Mine is probably the proverbial cry in the wilderness, but it seems to me that human beings—at least speakers of English—are regressing in their communication skills. Many of us, especially young people, rely heavily on abbreviations, symbols, and sign language to share ideas and emotions. It’s as if we never got beyond the colonists’ awkward attempts to communicate with natives in the New World.

English is arguably the richest, most versatile language on the planet. Not as pleasant to the ear as, say, French, but after WWII it superseded French as THE international language. It is, after all, the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare and the King James Bible. And we are forsaking this glorious tongue for something far inferior in the art of communication.

Of course speakers of English have long sprinkled our written language with abbreviations and acronyms in the interest of brevity and convenience. Mr., Mrs., e.g., and so on. Government and military entities are so full of acronyms (words formed of the first letters in a phrase) that they very nearly constitute a separate language—ETA, DEFCON, IRAs, for example. Some have even evolved into full-fledged words in the community at large—e.g., radar and snafu.

Human beings have made use of symbols for various reasons for centuries—in religion and commerce, for instance. The cross, the Star of David, the crescent. Our casual communications between family members and friends will often display a proliferation of Xs and Os to show our affection.

Perhaps the real explosion of such uses in modern times began with the smiley face. It existed before, but was really popularized in the early 60s. Then came other “emoticons” (and this new word to refer to them)—dozens of them. Today, we have “emojis” as well (and another new word) which constitute a language that is as undecipherable to the uninitiated as the American Sign Language is to most of the hearing world. Emojis. Google the term and you’ll see what I mean.

I won’t even get into the way Twitter has adulterated the language. r u rofl?—and so on. Trying to confine even the most profound ideas to 140 characters is an abomination to those who truly love this language of ours.

Yes. I know: I’m an old curmudgeon totally out of sync and whistling in the wind. But . . .

IN THE BEGINNING . . .

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Hah! You thought I was going to go all religious on you, didn’t you? Nope. I want to discuss the beginnings of novels. You know: that place where the author hooks the reader.

Some critic (I never heard who—it was on NPR) recently lauded Markus Zuzak for the opening lines of his new book, The Messenger. I’ve not seen the review or the book yet, though I loved The Book Thief. Anyway it got me to thinking about beginnings that I have particularly liked.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (of course!):

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

This sentence works delightfully. Yet it shouldn’t. Think about it. It begins with the vague pronoun it and the main verb is an innocuous “be” verb, is—no action there. The main clause is “It is a truth.” Yeah, so? Then we find a passive modifier (acknowledged) followed by a long subordinate clause (beginning with that) and we finally get to the main point. The sentence sets a tongue-in-cheek tone that we encounter again and again throughout the book. It also introduces the comic-serious subject of husband-hunting—or maybe we should say spouse-seeking? In any event, it works and it’s wonderful! (But just try diagramming that sentence!)

_______________

Call me Ishmael.

Herman Melville’s famous opening line to Moby Dick introduces his narrator, the restless wanderer, symbolically named Ishmael, who proceeds to tell of his periodic need to go to sea. “Whenever I feel myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul . . .” Don’t you just love that metaphor, “November in my soul”? Not March or December, but November. It is SO right!

________________

Leo Tolstoy starts Anna Karenina with

All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

That statement comes pretty close to being a universal truth on its own, but no, the book is not about a dysfunctional family—at least not only. Instead, it is a tragic love story about a sensual woman who defies the conventions of her society to follow her heart with disastrous consequences. My summary is incredibly shallow, and the book is incredibly rich in texture and characters. Tolstoy is not easy—but oh, so rewarding!

_______________________

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

These are the first lines of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. One is immediately pulled into the character of the hapless Meursault. Imagine obsessing about the timing of his mother’s death with nary a whisper of what that loss might mean. Is he that indifferent to other aspects of his life? Well, yes, he is, but the book presents a basic moral conundrum that transcends this one rather insignificant man.

_________________________

I had intended to share a couple more, you get the picture: beginnings, whether they draw us in slowly or abruptly, often set the tone for the entire story.

What are some of your favorites?

 

WRITER’S BLOCK

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OK. So here’s the story. Well, actually it’s not—a story, that is. And therein lies the problem . . .

Other than emails and blogs and a few (very few) letters, I have written nothing since last fall when I did manage to meet my final deadline for The Memory of Your Kiss.

So, you might ask, what’s the problem? I think it’s mostly that I work most efficiently under the constraints of a deadline. Perhaps that is a holdover from my days as a college student pulling all-nighters when a major paper was due—or from my days as a teacher when I put off grading papers until the very last moment. Anyway, right now I don’t have a deadline.

Mind you, I do have five or six books in various stages of planning, but only two of them are Regencies, and none is a finished manuscript. To break out of the Regency mold (partially—I will never give up the genre entirely!), I will need an agent and most agents want prospective clients to come to them with a finished manuscript in hand.Covered_Wagon_(PSF)

A few weeks ago, I dragged out what I call “my wagon train book.” I wrote six chapters of it several years ago and my critique group liked them. But then life got in the way. I was in a serious auto accident, then had to have back surgery. About the same time I lost my truly wonderful agent, Jane Jordan Browne, to pancreatic cancer.

When I got back to writing, I pushed the wagon train to a back burner and produced my WWII book, In Enemy Hands, and two new Regencies, An Earl Like No Other and The Memory of Your Kiss. I’m happy to say that, with some tweaking here and there, those first six chapters of getting characters on the trail “ain’t too shabby.”

However, in order to finish the book, I need to re-immerse myself in the research of western America in the middle of the 19th Century to recapture the flavor, the nuances, the mindset of that time and place. To this end, I am finding invaluable a series called Covered Wagon Women (Kenneth L. Holmes, ed.) which contains letters and diaries of women who made the trek west between 1840 and 1903.

Believe me, the “Pioneer Spirit” is not just a cliché historians invented!

EMILY HENDRICKSON, REGENCY MENTOR

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Dee-photoAs has happened with thousands of others, my love of Regencies began with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when I was a teenager. In my twenties, I stumbled onto the works of Georgette Heyer and I wanted to weep when I had run through all her Regencies.

Then I discovered Emily Hendrickson’s novels set in my favorite historical period. Oh, happy day!

Imagine my delight when I joined the Reno chapter of Romance Writers of America and discovered that Emily—“Dee”—Hendrickson was one of the key members of that group!

When Dee learned that I was trying to write a Regency, she offered her help and even gave me a copy of her Regency Reference Book. That book—and a myriad of phone calls—saved me from a multitude of errors. It continues to do so.

Anyone who really wants to be immersed in the Regency should own Dee’s book—and it is an absolute must for anyone who writes Regencies! (It is also available on CD-ROM.) It presents an eclectic gathering of topics: descriptions of male and female fashions, including types of fabrics used; types of carriages; the mail system; funeral practices; a dictionary of contemporary slang—and much more!

Yes, there are other reference books on the Regency period, but none whose coverage is so complete and readily usable. The Writers’ Digest tome on life in Regency and Victorian England is a good one. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool is nicely organized and insightful. Lawrence Stone’s books on marriage and divorce in England span several centuries and contain fascinating anecdotes. And, of course, there all those straight history books and hundreds of biographies and diaries.

But my “go to” source is always Emily Hendrickson first.