Tag Archives: Politics

Two families face housing crisis and changing worlds in Kingsolver novel

When I saw a novel by Barbara Kingsolver sitting on the “New” display at Barnes & Noble before Christmas, I snatched it up conspiratorially. I bought it and hid it because I thought for sure someone would be giving it to me for Christmas, I’m such a fan of Kingsolver fiction.

unshelteredBut I was safe. No one gave it to me for Christmas, so Unsheltered was the first book I cracked open when I made a New Year’s resolution to read 26 books this year.

As much as I anticipated it, it was a weird one starting out. Another reviewer described the beginning as a lecture in world economics, finance and domestic politics. Kingsolver also introduces 10 characters in two families living in two centuries in the first two chapters. It wasn’t easy to keep everything straight but I persevered, and I was rewarded.

It’s a thinker, tackling difficult subjects like parenting, unemployment and entomology. If you’re looking for an escape from your unending bills or your insufferable in-laws or your know-it-all 20something kid or the ants in your yard, you won’t find a respite here—they all play a role in Unsheltered.

As usual in Kingsolver novels, she throws in some history, some real people, some food, and some memorable characters. She mixes all the prickly parts together and gets a pretty good story, heavy on metaphor, I think. If you’ve read Kingsolver’s Lacuna or The Poisonwood Bible, you know what you’re in for.

As for the real people, one of the historical figures in this story is Mary Treat, a lady scientist who lived in Vineland, New Jersey, during the second half of the 19th century, when the historical part of this novel is set. Kingsolver’s noteworthy research brings Treat to life on these pages. Another real person is the Bullhorn, clearly a description of Donald Trump, who was running away with the Republican primaries during the course of the modern part of the book. Just a warning: If you’re a Trump fan, you might not like Unsheltered; Kingsolver is clearly not a fan, and Trump is a two-dimensional villain here.

The novel’s title comes from another character in the book: A house in Vineland where both families live. It’s falling down in both centuries, a crumbling, leaking, poorly built structure that barely keeps it together through the story. The title also addresses how the world looks when it becomes apparent the emperor has no clothes. In the late 19th century, the world is faced with scientific discoveries that turn religious belief, especially the belief that God created man from his own image and woman from one of man’s ribs, on its head (Charles Darwin plays a big role in Unsheltered). In the 21st century, the main character Willa, who believes people who work hard deserve a nice house and their children deserve more than their parents, is confronted with evidence to the contrary.

As mentioned, Unsheltered makes one think. About economic growth. About what babies and aging women deserve. About recycling. Even about press freedom. And if a fictional novel can do all that, it’s saying something. That’s a story worth reading.

Reflections on Arizona

I don’t know about you, but I am sick and tired of hearing about the presidential election. I’ve already early voted so no amount of cajoling or scare tactics can change my vote now. I. Am. Done. Shut up already. (As a political junkie, however, I will watch Tuesday’s election returns with spellbound interest.)

So assuming you’re as sick of the election as I am, I won’t bore you with a political post. But how about travel? The talking heads on the news keep pointing at maps of the United States when they’re telling us the latest poll numbers and about how the electoral college works. Don’t those blue and red and purple maps make you want to skip around the United States? Well, they inspire me.

Several years ago, I blogged about all the states I’d visited (and the ones I missed) in a six-part series. Perusing the list again now, I realize I still need to visit a number of states in the northeast (plus Alaska and Hawaii — alas, I’ve never been to either). But I also realize that driving through a state doesn’t provide much beyond geographical information. One needs to eat there and talk to the locals and peruse the bulletin boards in the local diners to understand a little bit about the soul of a place.

My Beloved and I spent most of our winter last year in Yuma, Arizona (please don’t confuse Yuma with Huma — we’re talking about travel here, not politics, remember?). When I talk wistfully about it now, my friends say, “Yuma? What’s so great about Yuma?”

Well, Yuma is no Grand Canyon. They’re both in the state of Arizona, but Yuma is a windswept desert, not a majestic canyon. The Colorado River runs through both the Canyon and through Yuma so there’s that.

Here’s what I found interesting about Yuma:

  • The desert. In the wintertime, it’s a beautiful place early in the morning and just after dusk. The temperature is perfect, maybe even a little bit cool. And the air is dry, dry, dry. When you look across the horizon, you can see for miles. Look up, and the star sparkle brightly.
  • The restaurants. There are no Michelin-starred restaurants there, but a Minnesotan wouldn’t know one when she sees one anyway. I liked the authentic Mexican taco stands and the yummy ice cream joints. And I still remember the Italian place with huge portions and half-price wine on Wednesdays. It’s a frugal Minnesotan’s dream.
  • The winter population. I’m sure the locals hate the snow birds, but I kind of like them. Retirees have led interesting lives. They’re not too demanding (especially the Canadians). And they go to bed at 10, so they make great neighbors.

If I’m lucky, I’ll get to go back to Yuma. And I’ve added a new wish to my list of things to see in Arizona: Chicago Cubs spring training.

Flat tax proposal is like winning the lottery — worth dreaming about but not worth much more

“Imagine a 10 percent income tax, with every American filling out his or her taxes on a postcard or iPhone app. And abolishing the IRS as we know it.”

~ Ted Cruz, candidate for U.S. president

OK, let’s imagine a flat tax for a minute.

  • I wouldn’t have to calculate the value of the 10 pairs of men’s jeans I donated to Goodwill (because there wouldn’t be a charitable deduction).
  • I wouldn’t have to track down the three different 1098 forms from last year that calculate the interest paid on my first mortgage, second mortgage and refinanced mortgage (because there wouldn’t be a mortgage deduction).
  • I wouldn’t have to figure out how much we contributed to the 401(k) (because there wouldn’t be a deduction for retirement savings).

That was a pretty nice minute spent imagining. Since I spent several hours tracking down the aforementioned items and about 100 others as I prepared for tax season.

Fun afternoon. Who likes that kind of minutia?

I’m not saying I’m a Cruz supporter (please do not pelt me with wet noodles — I’m just considering one of his proposals), but I really would love a simple flat tax, especially the one Cruz is calling for since it’s nearly half what this household is paying now (in the interest of fairness, I must tell you that Cruz critics say his plan would bankrupt the U.S. government, but I’m looking at my selfish picture here for one minute, not the country’s).

No one can say they love tax time. Not even a tax preparer — maybe they love the paychecks, but the work this time of year is crushing. (They’d all be out of a job if we had a flat tax because who would need help filling out a postcard, right?)

People who get refunds? (What’s a refund?) Do they like tax time? Well, they shouldn’t. A refund only means they gave the government an interest-free loan. If there was a flat tax, there would be no such thing as refunds — because the 10 percent would come out when the money was earned and there would be no quibbling about it.

Imagining a flat tax is fun, but the hard reality is that something as simple as a flat tax will never happen in the United States. Way too many special interests have a stake in deductions of one sort or another or in the tax preparation industry. Abolish the IRS? Ha! The realist in me just doesn’t see it happening.

But it’s nice to dream.

Flint water crisis is a drop in the sorry bucket of government

The presidential election season tends to bring out all kinds of haters, but especially government haters.

  • I hate government waste.
  • I hate Washington, D.C.
  • I hate federal government mandates.
  • I hate do-nothing politicians.
  • I hate paying for government programs.
  • I hate those bozos in Springfield (this is specific to Illinois haters, but there are probably state government haters in every state).
  • I hate pork (by pork, I don’t mean bacon — even vegetarians don’t hate bacon, they just don’t eat it — I mean pork barrel, that wasteful spending that we all pay for but only benefits one district).
  • I hate Democrats.
  • I hate Republicans.
  • I hate socialists who hate bankers.
  • I hate bankers who back socialists.

You get the picture. So we’re all looking for the candidate who spends less, does more and doesn’t clog up the news with negative advertising. Unfortunately, one man’s government waste and pork is another man’s hope and change.

But can all the haters agree on this? If government doesn’t do anything else, shouldn’t it be responsible for providing clean drinking water?

Even before providing for the common defense or ensuring the blessings of liberty (freedom of religion, speech, press and all that), isn’t potable water, like, the No. 1 way to promote the general welfare? Human beings can’t live for more than three days without water (and it gets downright uncomfortable after just 24 hours). Not to say anything about icy cold beverages, nice hot baths, washing clothes and watering lawns, right?

Water is right up there at the top of the priority list.

So this whole Flint, Mich., debacle makes me sick (not as sick as it’s making Flint residents, I’ll bet, but still, I’m appalled).

Here’s the deal. For the most part, a modern citizen can’t ensure her own potable water (though I once was pretty pleased in the investment of a simple water filter). Sure, 150 years ago, I could have dug my own well and lugged water in buckets I made myself from safely harvested materials, but nowadays, the government sources the water (or permits the well digging), the government treats the water and the government governs the pipes through which the water flows.

Government exists for exactly this sort of job. Most of the time, when it’s being done right, I’m quite happy to leave water delivery to government because the government can take advantage of volume discounts. I’m fine to pay for my share in one way or another, usually through taxes of one sort or another and then by the gallon in usage rates, because then I don’t have to buy own water treatment plant, water tower and pipe delivery system.

Same theory applies to road construction, the fire department, the military and libraries. I can’t afford to do these things for myself so paying for a piece of them ensures I have roadways on which to drive, that firefighters will come to my aid when my house goes up in flames, that fearless soldiers will fight on my behalf and that I can borrow a book for free.

But none of those things matter if I’m dead. And I’m dead if I don’t have a dependable source of safe water.

Effective governance requires knowledgeable personnel, active oversight, safe equipment and, I’m sorry to admit, tax-hungry entities like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food & Drug Administration.

Somewhere along the line, effectiveness in Flint’s water system got flushed.

At some point, we may know who exactly is to blame for Flint’s lead contamination problem, but I suspect the blame lies, in some way, with every level of government — local, state and national. A lot of lazy oversight and buck passing probably will be uncovered.

At worst, it’s just this sort of situation that inspires conspiracy theories (I was once a reporter in a town that refused to have its water fluoridated — because, lower your voice and look around furtively, that’s how the government poisons its citizens). And at best, the crisis in Flint is why so many people hate government. Because if government fails at the most basic and necessary functions, then what hope do we have that government — in any form, with any leader, of any party — can address our bigger, even more complex problems, like poverty, health care and North Korea?

Alas. Not much.

Confessions of a ‘dirty lib’: Trump’s latest book is, well, worth reading

Before diving into my review of Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again by Donald J. Trump, I feel compelled to remind you that Minnesota Transplant’s About page describes natives as “politically schizophrenic.” Minnesota once elected the most conservative senator in the U.S. Senate and the most liberal one. At the same time. And yes, we’re the state that called Jesse Ventura “governor.”

Full disclosure: I voted for Jesse.

And I would again.

Because I believe in the citizen legislator. Or, at least, the citizen executive.

No one really likes career politicians. Sure, we praise long tenures of people like John Boehner, but we admire their tenacity, not their career choice. (The ugly truth is, we hate everyone else’s career politician, but when they’re representing our district, we love our incumbent.)

That’s why I find Trump interesting. He’s shaking things up. He’s anything but an incumbent. He says what he thinks with no regard to political correctness or his donors. Because he is his own donor.

Crippled AmericaBy confessing some interest in Trump, surely I will offend the sensibilities of my liberal friends, but please know my Adored Stepson, who gifted me Crippled America for Christmas, has often called me a “dirty lib.” (This is an unfair characterization; I have said I don’t mind paying taxes for good community projects like roads, libraries and public safety and I’m generally against government legislating morality, but “dirty lib” goes too far in labeling me as an immoral socialist.) Perhaps Adored Stepson was attempting to convert me. But, fan of citizen executives as I am, I am open to Trump’s “brainwashing.” He’s refreshing.

I’m also a big believer in books, so I consider reading Trump’s tome to be a duty to the written word. And as a former member of the Fourth Estate, I know how “news” can be twisted into “entertainment.” Not all reporters are unbiased. So I wanted to hear Trump’s presidential intentions from the horse’s mouth. Or, if you prefer, from the horse’s ass.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s a good book with a poor title (“Crippled” reminds one too much of “cripple,” a sometimes offensive term, but then, Trump doesn’t care if he offends).

Anyone else who brags as he does about his accomplishments and riches would be considered arrogant. But a braggart he’s not: His schtick is not “loud, empty boasting”– it’s true. He is rich. He has built and restored a lot of beautiful buildings. He was host of a No. 1 rated reality TV show (yes, I am a fan of “The Apprentice”).

Would it be so bad to have a man who’s handled multi-million dollar budgets and large complex construction projects in charge of America?

You think his idea of a wall between the United States and Mexico is discriminatory? Not so fast. He wants to stop illegal immigration, not all immigration. Isn’t this a good idea? He’s anti women? Because he insults female television commentators and his female competition? He insults everyone, not just women. Don’t like his take-no-prisoners approach to public statements? OK, let’s support someone more polite.

Chirp, chirp.

Right, I can’t think of a long list of polite politicians I would trust with the White House either. Honestly, Trump evokes history with his tart opinions. Despite their erudition, integrity, and philosophical genius, the [Founding fathers of America’s revolutionary era] were fiery men who expressed their beliefs with unusual vehemence (Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2010).

Oppose his policies if you like (tax preparers, for example, would lose their livelihood if he gets his way with simplifying the tax code and fans of Obamacare and gun control will be disappointed in his policy direction), but don’t dislike him just because he’s brash.

I like a politician with an opinion, and Trump stands behind his in Crippled America. And whether you like him or hate him, you owe it to yourself to hear his story without television news’ addiction to outrageous quotes and outraged talking heads.

Blessings of liberty


I celebrate this Independence Day for the following reasons:

  • Because the government–not the guy living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, not the Congress, not the Supreme Court and certainly not the disagreeable leaders ruling my state of residence in Springfield–can’t tell me what to believe.
  • Because people–even the stupid ones and the ones I disagree with–have the freedom to criticize their government.
  • Because I can drive across this great country of ours on an interstate highway system that, though it is rife with road construction in the hot months of summer and most of the rest of the time, does a fine job of getting me there, wherever there is.
  • Because no matter how many men and women throw their hats into the ring to run for president of the United States (what are we up to now? 28 declared Republicans, 15 Democrats–yes, 15! look it up! and you thought there was just one–and a slew of third-party candidates), I have no fear that any of them (even Donald Trump) will take the post by force and violence. I–a woman! imagine that!–will get to vote, and they will abide by the vote of the people.
  • Because, in most circumstances Guantanamo Bay notwithstanding, evildoers will be tried by juries of their peers (even some who would have preferred to have been excused rather than sitting in court observing bickering attorneys), not judged and executed amid a shroud of secrecy.
  • Because sane, law-abiding citizens have the right to bear arms, and the crazy ones will be tried by those aforementioned juries.
  • Because young men and women willingly go to war to protect these freedoms.

A lot of things seem like they are broken in our system of government and our society today, but I remain grateful for a system that aims for “a more perfect Union,” [emphasis mine] one that gives me the opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Here’s to pursuing happiness! Happy Fourth of July!

The death of privacy is an illusion

“By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.”

~ Mark Zuckerberg

After a report today on CBS This Morning about a pair of toilets without a dividing privacy wall in a men’s room in one of the Olympic venues in Sochi, Russia, the pretty blonde sitting in for Norah O’Donnell mentioned there is no word for “privacy” in Russian (the only word that exists — “prajvesi” — is a borrowed word based on the English word for privacy).


It struck a chord with me because of the recent cyber security scares invading the public consciousness. Unless one drops off the grid, one’s personal information is floating around everywhere.

The bottom line risks are greater nowadays because nefarious people have access to the information of millions more people, but the individual risk is not a whole lot greater than it was 50 years ago when Gladys Kravitz-types peeked through window draperies to watch the comings and goings of their neighbors (not catching the Gladys Kravitz reference? She was the nosy neighbor on Bewitched who was always getting Samantha in trouble).

We’ve never had iron-clad privacy. Envy, murder and gossip were addressed in the 10 Commandments thousands of years ago on Moses’ stone tablets.

Who is most likely to kill you? Your spouse or lover.

Who is most likely to abuse or abduct your child? Someone who knows your child.

Who is most likely to burglarize you? Someone you know who knows where your valuables are stashed.

Though evil people murder strangers, rape children, raid suburban houses and drain securities to untraceable accounts in Nigeria, even they probably didn’t get the goods on their victims from the internet. Their victims are probably just random choices.

Invasions of privacy are not big events, most often, but small ones.

Aunts and uncles in far-flung states read my blog regularly and know the strange dishes I’m cooking, the interesting people I meet and the weather in my neck of the woods. In another time, those aunts and uncles would live next door and know all those things about me anyway. Who cares if a few hundred other strangers know, too? It’s not all that valuable of information. I’m just not that interesting.

And neither are you.

The world is no more transparent than it ever was, Mark Zuckerberg — it’s just bigger.

Some people get all freaked out about Facebook, but just because one of your friends’ friends might now know you’re playing Candy Crush or ate stuffed pepper soup for supper, who cares? I hate those grammar-disaster messages from creepers that say “Hi wow you have a unique smile and beautiful.” (Beautiful what?) But the “delete” key is a pretty effective way to combat illiterate weirdos.

Have your read about the man who got a letter from Office Max with “Daughter Killed in Car Crash” in the address? That’s an example of an appalling lack of decorum and extremely poor marketing on the part of a company buying lists of names, but it’s not an invasion of privacy. The death of the man’s daughter was a public fact.

The U.S. Constitution has no express right to privacy. We get bent out of shape about our loss of privacy but 150 years ago, entire families lived in one room and peed in a chamber pot. A stranger two towns over didn’t know the books being read or vacations being taken or babies being born, but life was hardly private. Privacy was as foreign then as it is now in Russia.

Yes, you should have strong passwords and monitor your online finances.

Yes, you should review and be aware of your privacy settings on your social networks.

Yes, you pay attention to who your kids are interacting with online.

It’s worth being careful and prudent. And it’s worth reining in the powers of an overreaching government. But the state of privacy today isn’t worth mourning. We delude ourselves to think we ever had it.

Is the end of the world upon us? I take comfort in small things

Is it possible universal fears of Armageddon change over time?

I’ve been traveling the past few days and taking the opportunity to visit with friends and acquaintances with whom I don’t get to associate on a regular basis.

Strangely, after chatting about kids and jobs, many discussions have veered into talk of doomsday.

(Maybe it’s me that’s obsessed with doomsday, not my friends, so this phenomena might not be strange as much as I’m making fertile ground for such talk. Let’s just state, for the record, that I believe change is constant and doomsday in some form is not only possible but inevitable. Remember the Roman Empire? They were once the world’s superpower and look where they are now — the stuff of Hollywood. Even their numbering system has been reduced to trivia questions. What is D + MIV?)

In any case, the theories on the end of the world or, at least, the end of America that I’ve heard in the past few days include: currency devaluation, governmental debt, political discord, the end of Big Oil, zombies (go figure, he’s a fan of “Walking Dead”) and yeti terrorism.

OK, I made that last one up. My nephews are obsessed with Big Foot so they’re the only ones terrorized by tall, hairy cyphers.

No one I’ve chatted with is afraid of a worldwide contagion (unless it causes zombie-ness) but let’s add that to contemporary doomsday fears.

Interestingly, I ran across a relevant program during a visit yesterday to the local historical society. The typewritten program was for a high school symposium in 1970 titled “Society Today … Tomorrow?”

Note the ominous addition of the question mark at the end.

HS 10

Among the discussion groups outlined in the program was “The People Crisis: After 200,000,000 … What?”

At first, I thought 200 million was a reference to the worldwide population. In fact, 3.7 billion human beings populated the earth in 1970.

Instead, the discussion group pondering our future in 1970 was discussing the U.S. population which had just crossed the arbitrary “200 million” mark in 1968, and China has just begun “encouraging” its citizens to have only two children per family.

My mother said she remembers this was a hot topic in schools during that time frame (she was a high school teacher in the ’60s and distinctly recalls students coming to class braless, gasp, so overpopulation wasn’t the only hot topic back then). In fact, when she became unexpectedly pregnant with my brother (her third child), she felt guilty for contributing to this serious societal concern.

Overpopulation is less “hot” today — shall we say lukewarm? One of the conversations I was party to this week centered around the continuing wisdom of investing in farmland which can be used to grow food for the world’s growing population. Google “is the United States overpopulated?” and the top two returns in order are “The United States is already overpopulated” and “Overpopulation is NOT the problem.” (“The United States is already overpopulated” brings you to the webpage for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, so consider the source.)

For the record, 313 million people live in the United States today. I would side with the “overpopulation is NOT the problem” camp if I had to choose.

Ultimately, that program from the symposium in 1970 comforts me. If overpopulation was the end-du-jour of the world and now ranks a distant 10 or 12, then surely today’s Washington gridlock will someday (soon) be the stuff of historical documents.

Unless the U.S. debt gets us first.

Personal presidential count

Generally, 98-year-olds can get away with things the rest of us can’t.

Talking about politics in polite company, for example.

I enjoyed a lively visit with my 98-year-old grandmother today, and at some point in the conversation (I believe it was right after her praise for the “Biography” episode on John Tyler, U.S. president from 1841-45), she observed that she’s lived through the terms of 17 U.S. Presidents.

Grandma was born in 1915, about halfway through World War I when Woodrow Wilson was president.

I marvel about that. She was alive when Woodrow Wilson was president.

She remarked that her favorite presidents were Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. Before you dismiss her as a hopeless liberal, she said this about Barack Obama: “I don’t know about him.”

I think she’s still not forgiven him for ruining the chances of Hillary Clinton to be the first woman in the highest public office in the land which, for a woman who’s seen a parade of 16 other men through the Oval Office during her lifetime, probably would have been a nice change of pace.

Whatever her politics, it’s impressive that my grandmother — who still lives by herself (with some help) — follows politics and can form valid opinions about goings-on in Washington. My personal presidential count: I’ve been alive through the terms of nine U.S. presidents, roughly half of what Grandma has seen.

I’ve got a ways to go.

Say hello to my little friend: My elected official’s answering machine

Don’t piss me off, Inside-The-Beltwayers, when I’m PMSing.

I listened to way too much National Public Radio in the past 48 hours, and I am completely fed up with the hand wringing  about sequestration from the current administration and spokespersons for every federal program this side of Mexico.

You can’t cut 10% from your bloated budget? Really? The American people and every surviving American corporation in the country had to figure it out during the Great Recession, and you can, too.

I don’t care if there are fewer meat inspectors. We all should be eating beans once a week anyway.

I don’t care if there are longer lines at the airport. The TSA is waste of resources that should be financed by airlines and its fliers anyway.

I don’t care of federal unemployment benefits are cut 10%. They don’t pay the mortgage anyway.

I don’t care if the Pentagon has to do more with less. We all have had to do it, and you can figure out how to buy fewer $3,000 solar-powered toilets, too. Word to the wise: You can probably get a good deal on used AK-47s confiscated from the streets on Chicago’s South Side; America’s housewives could teach you a thing or two about couponing.

I don’t care if HIV patients in Washington, D.C., will get 10% fewer free condoms. Have 10% less sex in the name of patriotism.

I don’t care about the so-called multiplier effect — seriously, did the bank bailout in 2008 multiple the good effects of spending? I don’t think so! The bad effects of spending cuts are an illusion, too!

So I called my elected representatives — I’m talking to you Sen. Dick Durbin, Sen. Mark Kirk and Rep. Randy Hultgren — and told them not to make any deals. Seriously, I looked up the phone numbers and called them. “Let sequestration happen!” I shouted into their answering machines (OK, spoke loudly — I don’t need more trouble. Sen. Durbin had a live person answering the phone — I guess that’s one of the perks of 16 years in the Senate, but for the record, we all could have made do with an answering machine!

I’m not only a fan of sequestration (fanatic?!), but I’m a fan of 10% more cuts in six months! Bring it on!