Sunday, April 19, 2009

Citizens' Summits

If you'd like to visit the White House these days, you don't need an invitation. You can take a free tour, which is a pretty cool thing given it's the place where the most powerful man in the world lives. All you need to do is have a request submitted by your Member of Congress, usually a member of the House of Representatives, but if you know a senator, that will work, too.

There's a whole paragraph of things you can't bring along when you take the tour. Most of the prohibited items are easily imagined: guns, ammunition, martial arts weapons, knives. A few things are more surprising: hair brushes, combs, lip or skin lotion. (For a complete list, visit: If you're carrying anything on the no-no list, they turn you away.

My wife and I took the tour back in the days of the Reagan Administration. The academic and historic details of the Red Room, the Green Room, and rooms the other colors of the rainbow are a blur. Interesting at the time, but forgettable after a while. What I remember clearly, though, was where we got to depart from the usual path. A couple weeks before we visited Washington, my wife was injured in a T-bone car crash. A fractured pelvis. So she was hobbling along on crutches when we entered the Executive Mansion.

Crutching the White House didn't meet with Secret Service approval; my wife was put into a wheelchair. People in wheelchairs, and their significant others, get to use an elevator that isn't available to the ambulatory crowd. You also, at least back then, got to cut through the White House kitchen. Of course, all this off-road trucking occurs in the presence of your own Secret Service escort. No opportunity to swipe one of the president's brownies as you pass through the kitchen.

Still, it felt pretty cool to get the behind-the-scenes glimpse of the place. I wouldn't have had more to say than, "Good morning," to Ronald Reagan if he'd been down in the kitchen restocking his jelly bean jar…but recently I got to thinking it would be interesting to spend an hour discussing current events with Barack Obama in the White House.

A citizen summit of sorts.

Over the past few weeks, President Obama has met with over ninety world leaders, or so NBC news told me tonight. So why shouldn't he have some everyday Americans over to the house to see what they (we) have to say?

Here's what I'm thinking. When you put in your request to visit the White House, you should have the option of asking for an Issues Quiz. You could choose your issue: the economy; the war in Iraq; the war in Afghanistan; health care; energy independence. Any of the biggies. Each quiz would have ten basic questions on its topic. Answer all ten questions correctly, and you win a prize…potentially.

Because once a month or so the president and the party leaders of each House of Congress would gather at the White House to sit down with six quiz winners taken at random from the White House tour line. The pols would get to make their pitches to interested citizens; regular American (who had displayed their interest and knowledge by taking the quiz) would get to respond directly, ask their own questions, maybe even make their own suggestions.

There would be no TV cameras allowed into these citizen summits, so nobody would be playing for tube-time, but there would be audio recordings and transcripts made, and both the people and the pols, if they chose, would be able to give video interviews afterward.

None of the everyday people taking part in the summits would be asked their political affiliations in advance, but in the interests of fairness and diversity, they would be asked their political leanings—liberal, moderate, conservative—and two of each group would be chosen for the citizen panels.

This idea would be easy and cheap to implement. It would give voters a chance to look at, listen to, and question the nation's political leaders up close, and it would allow the pols to hear what a random cross-section of the populace really thinks of their ideas.

Yeah, I know. It makes too much sense to ever happen.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Joys of the Writing Game

I got up at 5:15 a.m. yesterday to take the early Amtrak train from central Illinois, where I live, to Chicago, where I was scheduled to do a book signing. Necessity dictated that I take the 6:30 a.m. train instead of the 8:30 a.m. train because the signing started at noon, travel time was three-and-a-half hours and you have to allow for an hour's delay for every 100 miles you travel on Amtrak.

I'm a big fan of proposals to build high-speed rail lines in the U.S .

Much to my surprise, Amtrak's early train did an unexpectedly good imitation of the Eurostar—a great way to travel between London and Paris—and arrived only five minutes late. Which left me with almost two hours to kill before the signing. That turned out to be a good thing.

Not five minutes after leaving Union Station, I was walking east along Adams Street in the pouring rain when a westbound taxi roared through a puddle big enough to hold one of Steve Alten's sea monsters. The wave that arose was not quite as high as the nearby Big Willie (formerly the Sears Tower), it only seemed that way from my point of view. I'm happy to say my reflexes are still blink-of-an-eye quick; I regret to say my umbrella wasn't adequate to stop the approaching deluge.

Though I managed to shield my head and upper body, I was doused from the waist down. I didn't think showing up for a book signing in wet pants would make a favorable impression. I needed a place to dry off. I squished into a nearby Panera cafe and ordered a chocolate pastry, a small orange juice, and 300 napkins.

The young woman behind the counter was accommodating, but said even on a rainy day the limit on napkins was twenty-five.

I did what I could. Strangely enough, I wasn't too upset. It had occurred to me things could have been a whole lot worse if the taxi had hydroplaned and tacked to port. I could have wound up as a hood ornament. Perspective is all.

The indoor heating dropped the humidity level in the café below that of Death Valley in July and the dry air soon began sucking curb water out of my pants. As I'd arrived between the breakfast and lunch rushes, I was allowed to lollygag for an hour and forty-five minutes without making any additional purchase.

Then I headed out into the still-pouring rain to go to the signing. I was welcomed to the Books A Million store at 144 S. Clark Street by store manager Jeff Burakowski. He'd graciously set up a table with a display of copies of my new book, The President's Henchman. He provided me with pens to inscribe the books, a bottle of spring water, and said I should feel free to browse the nearby display rack of magazines.

Outside, it was raining harder than ever. The temperature was 36 degrees. The wind was gusting to over 30 miles per hour. It felt colder to me than when I'd last been to Chicago at the end of January. In other words, it was a perfect day for the Chicago Cubs to play their home opener of the 2009 season. Which they did, winning on a one-hit shut out.

As for people going out to book stores on their lunch hour, things could have been better. There were people in the store, but not a lot. There were people buying books, but not too many. At the checkout stand to my immediate left, I saw two customers buy titles by James Patterson and Stephen King, respectively, but in paperback not hardcover.

Long story short, I sold exactly one book. Again, though, I didn't feel too bad about it. The woman who made the purchase, Anne, was friendly, enthused about my book's premise, and looking forward to reading it. Luckily for her, she worked in an office above the store and didn't have to get soaked to make the buy. Which isn't to say, the day being what it was, she didn't have problems. The first pen I used to write the inscription ran out of ink, and the store had trouble running her credit card. I switched to another pen, someone gave the card reader a whack, and all was well.

Except that I faced another Amtrak ride to get home. In unprecedented fashion, though, not only did the train leave on time, this one, too, experienced a delay en route of only five minutes. Amtrak must have had its Swiss crews working yesterday. And after I got home I learned that another five-star review of The President's Henchman (that makes twelve out of thirteen; the other was four stars) had been posted on

It really is a terrific book, my latest, and it's being discovered bit by bit. Critical mass is going to be reached.

Someone once said you can't stop talent. You can slow it down for ten or twenty years. But eventually the sun will come out.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Race, Bigotry & Tribes

If there's one thing a writer loves almost as much as a whopping book advance, it's finding exactly the right word to convey what he has in mind. Choosing the right word is the literary equivalent of not only finding but threading the needle in the haystack.
Using the wrong word, especially a word the writer should know is wrong, is the mark of a hack. Or a propagandist. It is a stick in the eye to the discerning reader.

That's why I so often grind my teeth when I read or hear the word race in a news story. If someone were to ask me my race, I'd say, "The 1500 meters." Though I'm not as fast as I used to be, I can still complete the metric mile in a respectable time.

I would never describe my race as white. That would not only be chromatically inaccurate—I'm too ruddy—but skin color does not define a person's race. Obviously, there are those who disagree. For some people race is all about skin color.

So let's take a look at that idea. Back in the 1950s, the heyday of Jim Crow segregation, the "racial" classification Negro not only applied to people whose ancestry traced back to sub-Saharan Africa but also to people living in Pacific Oceania (Melanesia). Both groups have dark skins and certain other physical similarities.

The problem with this racial classification is that the Pacific "Negroes," on molecular and genetic levels, are more closely related to mainland Asians than Africans.

So if color is useful in distinguishing between crayons but not people, what is?

Before we get to that, let's extend the vocabulary of this discussion. What the layman calls race, the scientist calls subspecies. (The overarching species to which we all belong is Homo Sapiens, Latin for wise man. In  many cases "wise man" is a vast overstatement of who we are, but it's our working title.) Subspecies are population groups that have distinctive features as a result of evolutionary development. Just for fun, though, subspecies are sexually compatible.

Oh, and those distinctive evolutionary features that define a subspecies, scientists say there should be several of them and they should be genetically based. You see what I'm getting at here? It's a darned hard thing to have your own race.

Buying into a concept of race is an especially knotty problem for those who don't believe in evolution. From a Biblical point of view, if we're all descendants of Adam and Eve, and there have been no evolutionary forces at work since the time of Eden, it's a mortal lock we're all members of the same club.

Being members of one big family should bring us all some measure of comfort because there's at least one subspecies science definitely recognizes: Pan troglodytes. Chimpanzees. Wouldn't want to put the sexual compatibility idea to that test, though.

So if race is just a social fiction, how can anyone be racist? How can you discriminate on the basis of someone being a member of the same species you are? Doesn't make any sense.

Nevertheless, racist and racism have become far too powerful as literal curse words to be discarded any time soon. These words have been imbued with the power of magic. To utter them against a person or a form of behavior is to cast a spell, one that puts its target beyond the boundaries of decent society.

A much better word to describe an intolerance of those whose looks, speech, prayers, tattoos, and body piercings differ from our own is bigotry. Bigot, bigoted, bigotry. Strong words. Accurate words. Well chosen words.

They're not magical like racist or racism, but they're still able to cause ostracism if applied vigorously. Blatant bigots are not to be tolerated in polite society, and I'm polite enough to agree with that. I want those people out of my tribe.

Of course, there are people who adopt bigoted behavior to exile themselves from polite society. Other people want to carve out elbow room for themselves and kindred spirits without leaving the mainstream altogether. There may be only one race of human beings, but there is an infinite number of tribes, and it's routine to belong to several at once: the professional or occupational tribe; the political tribe; the choice of news media tribe; the sports fan tribe; the hobby tribe; the type of car you drive tribe. The list is endless.

Trouble doesn't simply occur between members of different tribes, it occurs between people who have too few tribes in common. Or too many that are antagonistic.

So the next time you're tempted to use the word race, give subspecies or tribe a try instead. If you have an impulse to think someone is racist, refine that thought to bigoted or maybe tribalist, if you can. That's what someone of my tribe would do.