I’ve been sitting here at home, pretty much self-quarantined since mid-February, wondering what I could do. I’m officially considered elderly (by everyone but me!); I have a compromised immune system; and these days, am dealing with a torn meniscus while I go through some cataract surgery and dental treatment that got delayed during the lock-down. Why the torn meniscus had to show up in the middle of all this, I don’t know – but a steroid shot in the knee has provided some relief, though I’ve learned that’s nothing you want to volunteer for lightly.
And yesterday, finally, I realized there are small things I can do – things I was already doing in the pandemic, but that now take on a new meaning and a new tone with our country exploding in pain. Among other things, I’m an online tutor for college students. We never see each other, but sometimes we’ll have live text chats or audio chats over the computer as we go through a student’s work. I never know who’s going to log on – the system serves universities all over the country.
Yesterday, one of my favorite students returned for a session. She has a fantastic sense of humor and we get along really well. As we were wrapping things up, I said, “I sure hope no one is making rotten comments to you just because you’re Chinese,” and she said thank you, and told me that was sweet. I realized the smallest of comments can go a long way.
No, I don’t know if a student who logs on is African American. I can pretty well figure out quickly if English is not their first language, but as for skin color – never quite sure unless they happen to say something. We aren’t allowed to ask or exchange any personal information. But in these very trying times, every so often I can figure out a way to inject a little extra kindness into a discussion or into my written reviews; I can inject a little extra encouragement, something positive in that student’s day. There are often lots of clues as to a person’s ethnicity and previous level of education. One of the advantages of not being able to see a student is that I can jump right over those clues and just plunge in, with the assumption that the student is a perfectly reasonable person trying his or her best to get an education and move forward in life. I assume it’s someone who can make a go of things given a little bit of hope.
So that’s my mission. I mean, I dearly love nagging people about spelling, grammar, vocabulary and punctuation; I get off on it. That’s my obsessive/compulsive side. But the sweetest rewards are when a struggling student – especially someone who plainly hasn’t had a good education until now, and who struggles with the language – says, “Thank you so much. You’ve really helped.”
And then what the hell does color matter? And why did it ever?

I feel very lucky that I still have my part-time job as an online tutor for college students.  It’s absolutely never boring – and, as Anna said in the musical The King and I, “When you become a teacher, by your students you are taught.” I learn so much through their essays. If we have a live session, I learn so much through their questions and concerns. What a privilege to work with them.

I applied for for this job last May with the original intention of beating any chemo brain out of my system.  I wasn’t sure I had much chemo brain, but I wasn’t taking any chances, either.  I was also looking for a new sense of purpose.

But for the first time, I am feeling a sense of guilt over the fact that I’ve had a cancer diagnosis and treatment within the past two years. It puts me in the high at-risk category, especially combined with my age. I am not able to get out and help other people through this. I’m not someone who can go out and pack meals for schoolkids who need it so badly. I have a sewing machine, but it’s risky for me to go out and get material to sew face masks for our health care workers – and it would be risky for me to go and deliver them someplace.

The best way I can help is to stay at home. I have a renewed sense of gratitude for my home, which is fulfilling its original intent to serve as an office as well as a home (I have both taught and worked online of and off for many years.). I have a huge sense of gratitude for my neighbors and our agreement to check in on each other. I have always been a fan of technology, but these days I am even more so – it’s so lovely to feel really connected with friends and family members.

I think the other way I can help is to provided reasoned commentary on some issues, and to lift people up on others.  I have a dear, long-time friend and colleague who just lost her daughter in a car accident, and that puts another perspective on this. Just because we are in the middle of a pandemic doesn’t mean that other things in life will stop happening. Some of us will have more than we can bear. The rest of us can help lift them up until they are able to bear it.

It’s no cliche to say we will move through this together. If we don’t, then we will simply crash separately. Let’s not let that happen.



The psychologists and psychiatrists among us must be busy these days, because it’s very difficult to escape falling into a wide-ranging and deep depression over the current barage of news.

James Bovard quoteIt’s been difficult for the past three years. But now, with this “tit-for-tat” set of violent exchanges with Iran, we are so close to war – and to a possible nuclear war at that – that it seems nearly impososible to keep a positive attitude.  Any my New Year’s resolution this year was to increase my gratitude.

I am still, as always, grateful for such seemingly simple things as hot running water; for electric lights; for appliances that work; for a warm house (winter zone here) and enough food. I am grateful for friends and family.

However, I would like to be grateful for a Congress that took up its rightful leadership role of being the only institution which can declare war; for a government that truly understood the checks and balances built into the system; for members of Congress who understood that the art of governance is the art of compromise, not the art of obstruction. I would like to be grateful for a government and for federal and district judges who were aligned in declaring that no person is above the law – not one; who understood that rolling back environmental regulations only leads us down the same kind of path that Australia is so tragically facing right now; who understood that there is no such thing as “trickle-down” economics, because having too much has a weird psychological effect of many people – they end up feeling like they never have enough.

Meantime, in my very small corner of the world, I am grateful for my life. I’m also mindful of those who have not nearly as much, right here in our own country. We need to keep speaking out; to keep telling the stories; to keep promoting the awareness – to recreate the reasons to be grateful for the founding of this country.



Who’s next?

I’ve been almost paralyzed into blog silence these last three years, overwhelmed by how much there has been that needed not just comment, but galvanizing action. It hasn’t helped that I was dealing with surgery and illness for most of this time, but still, I’ve been paying attention. I’ve continued to make small donations to those organizations with the same values I have – most of which I joined immediately after the 2016 election.

But now, the fires in Australia point all of us to the major issue of our time.

They have been too much, based on too little which is too late.

There is too much fire; it has spread across the entire continent. See the map below.

There was not enough done in years past to prevent it. Australia is heavily reliant on the coal industry. It has a prime minister who denies the reality of climate change. It has a government which has cut back funding for firefighters.

And now, it is too late.

Below is a map showing the placement of current fires.

Maybe you think of Australia as a great spot for tourists. If so, then know that the beautiful beaches of the south coast are decimated; the koala bear population in New South Wales has been cut by about two-thirds, with more to come; kangaroos are running for their lives; more than half a million animals have perished. People are without shelter and have lost their means of earning a living as well as their homes and  entire communities. The great “stations,” or ranches in the interior, are out of water. (https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/1753689/day-zero-looms-in-australian-outback.)

When whole ecosystems are destroyed, what supports life?

You would have thought it was bad enough that more than half of the Great Coral Reef is alrealdy bleached and dead. But somehow that hasn’t made the point. (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/great-barrier-reef-dying-climate-change-caused-decrease-in-new-coral-study-says/) Maybe it’s because few of us have had the privilege of seeing the Great Coral Reef except on TV.

But I have been to Australia. I have walked with friends through a rain forest there. I have been on the beaches. I have marveled at the plantains, the pineapples, the kiwi fruit; I have a beautiful art print by an aboriginal artist. I have seen the Sydney Opera House. I have also choked on forest fire smoke in Montana and in Oregon. I can relate.

Weep for Australia. And ask yourself, Who’s next? Africa, with its severe droughts? Parts of Europe and the western U.S., so prone to fire? Other parts of Europe and the southwestern and eastern parts of the U.S., overtaken by floods, twisters and rising sea levles?

And whoever is next – will we reach out to help each other? Will we finally listen to the scientists? Should we start preparing long letters to our grandchildren, saying how sorry we are? How we took running water for granted? How we assumed our homes would always provide shelter? How we thought there would always be enough food at the local grocery store? How we didn’t expect a summer to reach 110 degrees here in the cool Pacific Northwest? How we were aware of increased forest fires, but never thought they would get that bad? How we assumed that somebody, somewhere was working on solutions and would let us know when things were right again?

Is anything else as important? As much as I want to fight for democracy, for women’s rights, for freedom of the press, for overturning the disastrous regulations put in place in the last three years, to stop the march toward war, and to replace politicians who seemingly have no spine to stand up and do what is right – all those things pale in my mind when replaced with this one question:

Who’s next?


There are too many wars; there have always been too many wars. But the courage, grit and determination of our troops can never be recognized enough.  We remember and mourn those we have lost – the lost love, the lost potential, the lost dreams, the lost opportunities.  We owe these service members; we owe their memories, we owe their families.

I wrote that paragraph this morning for my Facebook page and for the Military Vaccine Resource Directory site, which I manage.  I have nevver understood war, ever. I have never understood why people killing each other is seen as a solution to problems. But I do know how well trained our service members are, and the courage with which they face unimaginable evil and violence. I do know the love and loyalty they develop for each other, and how this actually helps them come home again. Just not always.

I’m also well acquainted with what it is to be the wife or the mom at home while a loved one is deployed. There is an underlying fear that never leaves. There is the dreaded, imagined image of two uniformed officers appearing at the front door. And for too many, there is the heartbreaking mCasket2oment of sitting at the graveside while another univormed officer hands you a folded American flag.     

What we lose in war is far more than the individuals lost; it is also the permanent, scarring grief left behind for their families. It is the children growing up without a Dad or Mom. It is the spouse who suddenly becomes a single parent. It is the best friend who wonders if he or she could have done anything at all to help.

And for survivors, it is the risk of suicide once they come home. They are casualties of war as well, and for too long, they have been invisible to us. They survived, so we think; they should be fine. Never assume that. If you know a returned veteran, reach out. Find a way to help. We all owe our servicemembers more than we will ever be able to replay.




About buzz words

As a general rule, I hate buzzwords.  The most recent one I hate is “authentic.” It’s nearly as bad as “organic,” the meaning of which has become distorted beyond repair.

The rise of “authentic” – an “authentic” message, an “authentic” story, and so forth – seems to have come into popular use about the same time as the cries of “Fake media!” have emanated from the White House. I suppose it must reflect a desire to express what is real, to get at the heart of a matter, to write and received messages which are verifiable, real and true. My dictionary defines “authentic” this way:

Authentic: 1. Authoritative; reliable 2. Of undisputed origin; genuine

Synonyms: True, verifiable, real, legitimate, authorized, accredited

One problem is that if you have to keep saying you send out only authentic messages, that you only speak with authenticity, then you begin to sound as inauthentic as they come. It comes under the heading of Shakespeare’s “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks,” in the play Hamlet, which, in our common usage, has come to indicate someone who does not speak with sincerity. In my own way of putting it, you have to turn over every stone – i.e., anytime someone makes continuous, repeated statements about who they are, what they believe or what principles they uphold, turn over that stone and look on the other side. It then no longer surprises you when the man who rants against homosexuals turns out to have a male lover; when the woman who decries abortion has had one herself; when the coach entrusted with inspiring and training children turns out to be abusing them.

If you are going to use the word “authentic” or any of its synonyms, you’d do well to use it in conjunction with research you have done, or something you’ve observed. Portraying yourself as authentic should be unnecessary. Somewhere in your reputation should be an acknowledgement by other people that you are, indeed, an authentic person – someone whose word is verifiable, someone who is real and genuine.

We stress those things a lot in the field of public relations. Many of us in the field have the initials “APR” after our names, which means that we are Accredited in Public Relations. We have had to pass a grueling test as well as an interview by three judges to earn this distinction. It means we are authenticated in our profession; we’re the real deal, we’re not practicing on a fly-by-night basis.

There’s an old saying in PR that can be applied to anyone, anywhere: Never fall for your own publicity. If you do, you risk losing a strong sense of your own reality, your own authenticity. While it’s good to put your best foot forward, it’s unrealistic to believe that’s the whole story. If you want to be authentic, be like the Velveteen Rabbit – let life rub off the rough edges and stay real.

To the reader: I made these notes when I traveled to Germany, Poland and Latvia with the Missoula (Montana) Mendelssohn Club on their overseas concert tour during the summer of 1989. The tour was part of the club’s tradition regarding Missoula’s International Choral Festival, held every three years, and I was their publicist. The Berlin Wall would come down that November; but at the time of this visit, communism and its rules still prevailed, and reminders of WWII were perhaps more impactful for their stark simplicity. The Mendelssohns experienced extraordinary hospitality – and music – in Poland.

An elderly man mows the weeds between the long rows of barracks. He sits on an old tractor, pulling what looks like an ancient kind of mower attachment. There is no expression on his face.

The old barracks and the guardhouses on this side of the barbed wire are made out of wood, something unusual to see in our brief time in Poland. The barracks are long, low buildings, marching row after row, not even having the decency to sag after all these years.

The main building at the entrance to the camp looks the part: all brick, very much an administration building, very much an entrance guardhouse as well.  It stretches horizontally to either side of the entrance gate, called the “Gate of Death.” The railroad tracks enter the camp through that gate, extending almost a mile toward the back of the property. The length is such that many boxcars could have been accommodated at one time, disgorging hundreds upon hundreds of terrified human beings as if they were cattle entering a slaughterhouse – as, indeed, they were considered to be.

There is no monument at the other end of the tracks. There are not signs anywhere. The camp accepts visitors but resists the trappings of a tourist destination.

Farther back in the camp there are rows of chimneys standing in ancient military precision through the fields, ghosts of buildings long since gone. Utility poles with electric wires run the length of the grounds, and on these wires, birds are singing.

The barbed wire remains, attached at 20- or 30-ft intervals to cements posts. The wire is tapered and curved inward at the top. There are perhaps 12 to 15 strands of barbed wire along the straight shafts of the posts, then four to six more tightly packed strands on the inward curve. Every four posts, there is a light.

It is empty, this camp, but not silent. The mutterings of the tractor and mower can be heard across the grounds. Small piles of hay are heaped in mounds four or five feet high. Workers come along with pitchforks to load the hay into trailers, which are towed away by a truck.

Visitors from our group wander through the compound, talking softly. A small breeze moves through the grass. A haze covers most of the sky, making the sun a pale, dirty yellow which casts no shadows.

Not half a mile away is a major railroad switching yard. Between the yard and the compound, perfectly ordinary Polish houses dot the tree-line country road. A couple of women ride by on bicycles; a tourist bus rumbles by. It does not stop.

At first, the woods at the far end of the compound, beyond the end of the tracks, look inviting and cool in the summer heat. But there in neat, precise German fashion, are the sites of the burning pyres, the gas chambers, and, of course, the sewage and water filtering equipment. It all shows meticulous planning, these 45 years later; everything is orderly, efficient, engineered – planned. All of it planned.

People from our group walk by in clusters of two and three, discussing what they have read or heard until now – and how this building must have been such-and-such, and that site must have been so-and-so. I try to hear the silenced voices but cannot; yet it seems their shadows move through the grass.

Near the entrance, the last load of hay moves out of the gate. We walk back to our buses, discussing other things. A look back at the skeletal buildings, the stillness, the silence. This, too, I think, they have done to Poland. But like birds on the wire, the Poland we have known keeps singing.




I’ve been off this blog for a long time. First, a lot of job and personal changes were distracting; then, I felt completely overwhelmed these last two years with the overload of information we’ve all faced. It’s been hard to sort out my thinking.

But I keep coming back to a core principle: while our methods and means of communication have changed – while the very tone of our communication has changed – I’m not at all sure we’re hard-wired as human beings to change as rapidly. It’s much more difficult these days to think through things carefully, deliberately, strategically; it’s much more difficult to find those sources which you can rely on for valuable perspective. So too often we stop at the headlines; too often we fall for slogans; too often, we go for the most simplistic explanation, disregarding all the grays in a preferred black-and-white scenario; too often,  we give way to the cheapest, easiest kind of emotion that takes no thought, no self-discipline. The easy way out is not as much because we are lazy (though I, for one, often am). The easy way out is a recognition that we can’t adapt readily to the rapidly changing complexities of the world we live in.

We want simple. We want push-button answers. We want to feel safe and secure again, like we belong.

But the answers aren’t there; simplicity isn’t there. So what do we do?

I would suggest that we slow down. Step back from absorbing so much information; winnow things down to what you really need in your life. Take stock of what you most need to do to succeed at your job and in your personal life. Eliminate the superfluous.

Decide on one or two causes you want to focus on during this time of upheaval. For me, there are three major issues: First Amendment rights, the environment, and women’s issues. I donate to some organizations fighting the same battles; and when I can, I take an active role. This summer, due to other obligations, being active has been difficult. But I still have a voice and a conscience, and I can still speak out.

Simplify. Don’t listen to all the voices; they won’t all add to the discussion, they won’t all provide useful information, and too many of them will just clutter up your brain. Take care of your brain, take care of your spirit. Don’t demand of yourself that you acclimate and adjust all at once. There is so much value in walking slowly.



Excellent article on the value we provide to our younger colleagues – and the value they provide to us:


The question mark on the title is because I’m hoping it’s not true.

I frequently told my students that the first thing any dictator (or would-be dictator) does is go after the intellectuals, destroy knowledge, and prohibit free speech. I told them their education was the one single thing that no one, ever, could take away from them. I was thinking of Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” years ago in China when I said that, and of similar instances in other countries throughout history. I  didn’t have a sense then of anything similar happening in this country, but I wanted the students to know the difference between what they had available here and what people in some other countries – such as North Korea today – didn’t have.

And yet in such a very short span of time, here we are – running into it headlong.

Those of you who have followed me on Facebook or even Twitter are probably aware that I’m avidly following the journey of Paul Salopek as he walks “Out of Eden.”  As National Geographic describes his journey on that same page, “Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek is retracing our ancestors’ ancient migration on foot out of Africa and across the globe. His 21,000-mile, multiyear odyssey began in Ethiopia—our evolutionary “Eden”—in January 2013 and will end at the tip of South America.”

Mr. Salopek often combines observations about our current western world with thoughts about the history of the places he walks. In the December 2017 issue of National Geographic, he write Part Six of his story, reporting from the Old Silk Road, a network of routes stretching from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan and beyond in Central Asia. The Old Silk Road routes are ancient, used 2500 years ago for trade between China and the Roman Empire.

He is walking through a Muslim world, and writes, “The paradox of Islamic extremism today if that the historical caliphate that jihadists so desperately wish to resurrect would likely repel them. At the height of its power in the Middle Ages, the Muslim world flourished precisely because it wasn’t fundamentalist – it was tolerant, open, inquiring. The freewheeling and polyglot spirit of the Silk Road was one key to this. ‘Central Asia was a major center of learning at that time,’ says Shakzukhmilzzo Ismailov, a historian at the Khorezm Mamun Academy museum in Uzbekistan. ‘We produced many world-class scientists.’

“…But my interest in the region stretches back earlier – to a period spanning the eights to the 15th centuries,” Salopek writes. “At that time Silk Road entrepôts (ports, cities or trading posts) …rivaled or even outstripped Europe in intellectual achievement. This was the Arab Golden Age of science, art and culture…”

He goes on to describe specific achievements of the era, saying “The Silk Road’s noisy bazaars of alien products and ideas – Renaissance European, ancient Greek, Indian, Persian, Chinese – stoked this intellectual explosion. So did a new school of religious thought…which injected rationalism and logic into religious doctrine, fanning scientific inquiry. ‘There were practical reasons too,’ Gavkhar Jurdieva, an architect in Khiwa, tells me. ‘To survive in this desert you need farming. And to farm, you need to understand irrigation, and that requires engineering. We used math to feed ourselves.'”

Ultimately, Salopek writes, “It wouldn’t hold. Weakened by dynastic struggles,the caliphate began to crack at the edges. A purifying movement called Asharism took root against ‘outside elements’ of thought: This smothered most fields of scholarly research beyond religious study. The Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258. The lights of a gilded era blinked out.”

As he watches modern-day tourists in the region, Salopek continues, “…I think about how few people in the world today know how a light bulb works. About the willful ignorance behind climate change denial. About the closing of the public imagination in the West and the resurgence of populism, of tribal nativism. It is an instructive time to be rambling the Silk Road.”

He wonders if, as Kublai Khan once asked of Marco Polo, our journey takes place only in the past.