Penny for Your Thoughts



The line outside Pfeiffer Hall in downtown Naperville, Illinois, wound around the block. Those queued up, my sister and I among them, excitedly chatted as the line inched forward. What were we all so eagerly standing in line for? A concert? A great sale? A glimpse of an A-list celebrity?

We were all there to see and hear a rock star of the crime novel world: Louise Penny. Penny was making an appearance to launch A Great Reckoning, her latest in a series of best-selling books about Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, and the tiny Canadian hamlet of Three Pines, a fictional town that readers around the world wish they could move to.

A few years ago, another of my sisters had introduced me to the charm of that world by recommending Penny’s first novel Still Life. Like many readers, I was hooked by the other-worldly setting and the carefully drawn characters that inhabited that world. I consumed the subsequent novels in relatively quick succession and now find myself in the position of eagerly awaiting each new book.

To call Louise Penny a mystery writer is to minimize the literary quality of her books. For me, the murder and its solution are almost beside the point. What Penny is really portraying are the secrets of the human heart. All of her novels are about human emotions gone wrong, about integrity and courage, about love and steadfastness in a world gone bad. The characters are not just a bunch of eccentric villagers but well-drawn individuals with their own flaws, yearnings, hopes, and fears.

Last night, the author explained that each book hinges on a few lines of poetry that form the core theme of the work. She talked about the difficulty of becoming a writer and described a bit about her process, all of which I find fascinating as a would-be novelist myself. In person, Penny is as intelligent, funny, charming, and real as I would expect her to be based upon the strong narrative voice in her novels.

Upon returning home from the book launch, my sister and I sat on the couch with a glass of wine and talked about all of Penny’s 11 previous novels, trying to remember which one involved which complex story. We checked out websites to refresh our memories and found that Louise Penny has inspired a Harry Potter-like passion on the part of her avid (if slightly older) fans.

As fall approaches, I can think of nothing cozier than curling up in front of the fire with a strong cup of café au lait or glass of wine and diving into the world of Three Pines and the humble genius of Louise Penny.

Stand and Deliver*



I get it, Colin Kaepernick. It’s a free country. You have a First Amendment right to express your disgust with the United States of America by sitting through the national anthem before a football game. But you still should not have done it.

There are many situations in which people are called upon to show respect for another person, a country, a faith tradition, or an ideal. They may not love everything that person or country or religion stands for. They may even hate it. But it is incumbent upon civilized human beings to respect others’ long-standing traditions. (Don’t get me started on the “burkini ban” in France!)

For example, women who visit the Vatican cover their shoulders. Women in many parts of the Middle East, even Western visitors, show respect by covering their heads. Men remove their hats in places such as churches, schools, and work places. In any country, it would be expected for people to stand respectfully while that country’s national anthem is being played. In the U.S., many people also place their hands over their hearts.

It is a simple matter of respect to do so, and fans are justifiably outraged at Kaepernick for his protest statement. Furthermore, if Kaepernick wants to protest racism in America, there are much more meaningful ways to do so. He could join a #BlackLivesMatter protest. He could use his public persona to speak out on issues that he cares about or get fellow NFL players together to lobby Congress for meaningful legislation to combat the inequities he sees.

In an interview, Kaepernick said he thought his move would open up dialogue on the subject of race in America. But all it has done is cause fans to burn his jersey and post outraged memes on Facebook comparing him to Tim Tebow. And as much as I may agree with his belief that racism is a major problem in our society, it’s hard for me to sympathize with a guy making millions of dollars. Maybe if he were using those millions to promote change in society, I would give his protest more credence.

So stand or don’t stand during the “Star Spangled Banner,” Colin. Just don’t be surprised when your fans boo. They are exercising their free speech rights too.

*Since writing this post many months ago, I have had a 180 degree change of opinion. Especially in light of the way Donald Trump has vilified black NFL players who have had the temerity to protest, however quietly, racial injustice in America, I have come to understand and respect Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the anthem.

Tempest in a Teapot



Raise your hand if you are sick of hearing or seeing the phrase “Hillary Clinton’s emails.” Since the latest presidential election cycle began (right around the time of Pres. Obama’s inauguration), conservatives have been dogging Clinton over her use of private email while Secretary of State. It did not matter to them that her Republican predecessors also used personal email accounts for matters of State. And it seems not to matter that not one instance of harm to the United States can be attributed to said use.

I agree that Clinton has been disingenuous in some of her comments about the issue. But she has expressed regret and acknowledged that it was a mistake to use her personal email account while Secretary of State. And the FBI has closed its investigation on the matter. Enough already!

The latest brouhaha concerning Clinton is the Clinton Foundation and revelations that donors to the foundation were given access to her while she was Secretary of State. I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s such a big deal that she may have helped a Nobel Prize winner in his dealings with the government of Bangladesh, or that her department might have helped someone’s relative get a visa. Once again, there is no evidence that Hillary Clinton engaged in wrongdoing or put national security at risk.

The Clinton Foundation is a charitable organization. The Clintons themselves are not allowed to profit off of funds donated to the charity. And in fact, Charity Watch gives the foundation an A rating due to the preponderance of its funds being used directly for programs around the world.

The reality is that the Republican Party has nominated a rogue candidate that embarrasses them and that they can’t control. So they have turned to repeated assaults on the integrity of the Clintons to distract from the fact that Donald Trump has no substantive ideas and is temperamentally unfit to be president. They are helped by the fact that for whatever reason, people love to hate Hillary.

Meanwhile, the Republican presidential candidate can say whatever hateful thing comes to his mind while the conservative media not only fail to call him on it, they take over his campaign (cf. chairman of Breitbart News). Republican Senator Mark Kirk calls the president of the United States the “drug dealer in chief.” Donald Trump is being endorsed by the likes of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.

It’s time for the Republican Party to admit it made a mistake courting the fringe elements that made up the Tea Party movement and spawned the politics of anger.  Moderate Republicans especially would find much to admire about Hillary Clinton’s centrist economic positions and tough stances on foreign aggression. If only they would stop combing through her emails and look at the candidate herself, they might see the next president of the United States.

40 is the new 30


14055109_10209054481990834_6165462127983723672_nThere was a small knot of about 40 people gathered in the field house at York Community High School when I arrived for the tour. I felt almost as nervous as I had my freshman year when I entered these halls for the very first time. Scanning the faces of the group, I did not immediately recognize a soul. After all, it has been 40 years since we said goodbye to high school and ventured out into our adult lives. The vicissitudes of life were bound to change us.

Finally, I saw my good friend and our senior class president Sal, who over the years has looked exactly the same as he did in high school. I was also meeting my close friend Lynn, who I found standing next to a small woman it took me a few moments to recognize: Jan. This was going to be a fun day after all.

I have attended all four of my high school reunions over the years and have always enjoyed myself. At the 10 and 20 year reunions, I felt like a much better version of my awkward teenage self. It was interesting to see who was married, where people were living, what jobs they held, how many kids they had. Having grown into our more mature and confident adult selves, we were free from the cliques and insecurities that characterized our teenage years.

This decade’s reunion was held at a local bar and bowling alley. A dedicated committee had festooned the place with green and white balloons and luminaria made from copies of yearbook pages. There were a few speeches, group photos, and “our” music played by a DJ who probably thought he should break out the Lawrence Welk tunes. Many of the York alums I spoke to agreed that there was only one flaw in the evening. The names on our name tags were not in big enough print for our failing eyesight.

At the party, I had the same sense of wonder at so many faces I did not immediately recognize. Being part of our graduating class’s Facebook group helped since I could peruse the “mature” look of many classmates on that page. Some of us have changed a lot both physically and emotionally. Others look identical to their teenage selves but have no doubt also grown and changed.

In the years since high school, I have lost contact with almost all the people I knew and liked there. It’s very gratifying to be able to go back every 10 years and catch up on the lives of old friends and even acquaintances. Many of us are now grandparents, and our hair is now gray, dyed, or missing altogether. But put us together in a room with a little disco music or something by Steve Miller Band, and our youthful spirit comes right back to us.

My York High School friends and I graduated in the country’s bicentennial year. Over the years, we have lost many things: parents, spouses, marriages, even children. Many of our classmates suffered an untimely death. Yet we have also gained a lot: wisdom, maturity, love, our own cherished families. It’s nice to get together and celebrate all we were to each other in 1976 and all we are in the present.

Here’s to our 50th, York Class of 1976!

Hail to York High !
Dear beloved name
We will ever sing in joyful praise
Striving in all we do to bring thee more fame.
Voicing our love for thee in loyal acclaim, Yea !

Dear old York High, we will fight for thee
Strong in battle, true in love
Both our heart and our hand
We do pledge as we stand
Dear Old York High, Hail to thee.

Me First



I like eating the end pieces of a loaf of bread – the heel, as we always called it in my family. And that is a lucky thing. Most people dislike and discard the heel of bread as the least desirable part, but mothers are often willing to settle for it, or the toughest piece of meat, or even the leftovers on their child’s plate.

When I became a mother, my baby became the center of my life. I spent every waking hour tending to her needs or fretting over her discontents. Things I had really cared about before – my appearance, my clothes, my exercise regimen – all went by the wayside once my daughter came into my life. The only self-care I paid attention to was the nutrition I needed to be able to nurse her.

Over time, I learned to let go a little. I managed to part with her for brief periods of time, leaving her with a babysitter and myself with a lingering sense of guilt. I resumed exercising, usually with her nearby, and I even managed to put on makeup and a nice outfit for an occasional “date night” with my husband.

But mothering has almost always superseded my own needs. As a mother, I work around my children’s schedules. Before I can relax, I first make sure they have what they need, whether it be a meal, an item for school, or a personal necessity. I drop everything to take them to the doctor, help with homework, chauffeur them to activities, or listen to a tale of woe. I have no complaints. That is simply what mothers do.

But sometimes it can feel overwhelming to spend days and nights obsessing over my children’s lives. At some point, it becomes unhealthy to neglect one’s own appearance and even physical well-being for the sake of the kids. So I try, I really do. I have coffee with a friend or get my nails done or go for a walk. I make plans that don’t involve my children. Still, I have a sense of disquiet whenever this “me time” seems to conflict with what my kids want or need.

This summer at sleep away camp, my daughter learned the virtues of  “living third.” The motto at camp was,  “God first. Others second. I’m third.” It is the essence of the Christian ideal to put others before ourselves. And I’m so glad my daughter is incorporating this ideal in her life. Still, I hope she learns – and I hope I can more effectively model for her – that sometimes it’s okay to say, “Me first.”

Fair Play



Imagine this scenario:

A pastor and his colleague are shot to death in broad daylight shortly after leaving their church. What immediately comes to mind? Many people would assume this was a hate crime, and some would even jump to the conclusion that Islamic terrorism was behind the shootings. The incident would figure prominently in newspapers across the country.

Such an incident did occur in New York this past weekend. But it was an imam and his associate who were fatally shot just after leaving their mosque. I read about this event in a tiny story tucked away on page 29 of Sunday’s Chicago Tribune. Did the idea of a hate crime spring immediately to mind? Well, not to the police. They indicated that “there is no reason at present to believe the men were shot because they were Muslim.”

In the absence of suspects or hate-filled graffiti, such a police response is reasonable and prudent. The fact that the death was not sensationalized by the press is also wise. The problem is that we don’t use the same standards in every case. Amid the current anti-Muslim climate in this country, any time a person of Muslim faith commits a crime, we immediately assume it is terrorism. Yet the story of the New York Muslim clerics shows that Muslims are often victims too.

Muslims are as diverse a group of people as any other in America. Yet we insist on painting them all with the same brush. A recent article about acting parts for Middle Eastern actors, for instance, revealed that they have a difficult time being cast as anything other than a sinister terrorist. Just as blacks were relegated to the roles of criminal or fool in recent cinematic history, Muslims are also stereotyped as evil.

It’s time to start painting a more fair picture of the many Muslims who call America home. Just yesterday, Ibtihaj Muhammad made history by becoming the first Olympic medalist to  wear a hijab. The dedication and excellence that earned her a bronze medal in fencing give us a different image of Muslims. Muhammad was a three-time all-American at Duke University.

Muhammad’s stature is unusual, but her place in America is not. On average, Americans Muslims are as educated and prosperous as other Americans. They work as hard and care as much about the values that make America great. It’s time to refashion the image we have of Muslims in America and realize that they are part of the enormous melting pot that gives our nation vibrance and strength.

Going for the Gold



The pomp, the pageantry. The inspirational stories of hardships overcome. The athleticism. The greed, the corruption, the doping, the showcase for dictators and scandal-plagued nations. Such is the state of the modern Olympic Games.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is supposedly a non-profit organization that runs the alternating summer and winter competitions every two years. Yet recent investigations have revealed a pattern of corruption and failure to address cheating on the part of Olympic athletes.

For instance, the competition among cities to host the Games has been riddled with payouts and lavish perks for members of the IOC – in short, bribery to get the hosting honors. Currently, investigators are looking at the process used to award Tokyo with the next Summer Olympics venue. Furthermore, the IOC has allowed despotic regimes to host the games in order to rehabilitate their questionable reputations on the world stage. Most recently, this involved looking the other way when rampant doping on the part of Russian athletes should have come to light.

There have been scandals involving judges and broken promises to host cities, whose citizens are usually worse off after holding the games. This year’s Olympics are no exception, with Rio de Janeiro being the dubious choice for an international celebration of peace and excellence. Brazil’s economic woes have only been exacerbated by the expense of building the structures and providing the security necessary for the games to go on. Along with the threat of the Zika virus, the host city has been plagued by political corruption, crime, violence, pollution, and inadequate infrastructure. Not a very charming venue to showcase the world’s best athletes.

The problem with the modern day Olympics is that it has become big money, mostly for corporations, star athletes, government officials, and members of the IOC itself. The revenues generated from ticket sales are nothing compared to the advertising revenue paid to NBC and the endorsements enjoyed by the most famous Olympic athletes. Such money encourages corruption, whether it be bribes to officials or illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes eager to cash in on Olympic glory.

Let’s face it. The so-called goal of “Olympism,” as the IOC refers to it, is world harmony and peace. Instead, countries compete to see how many medals they can rack up for the glory of their own country. (NBC encourages the jingoism by regularly posting the number of medals each country has won.)  As one writer pointed out, a few days after the Sochi Olympics ended, Russian leader Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea. So much for international cooperation.

It also seems a bit strange to have the world’s strongest, fittest athletes being sponsored by Chicken McNuggets. Somehow those Olympic-based ads with their inspirational soundtracks ring hollow against the backdrop of cheating and sheer commercialism. Even Simone Biles’ impressive athleticism and winning smile don’t quite overcome the hypocrisy of the modern Olympic Games.

Some have suggested that a permanent site be built in Greece to host the Summer Olympics every four years. This would eliminate some of the financial burden a city takes on by having to start from scratch building facilities that will go virtually unused after the games move out of town. The IOC wants to build an Olympic museum, and Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics, would be the logical location for such a paean to athletic excellence. Revenues from the games could be used to maintain the facilities, and tourist attractions could become part of the draw of the Olympic Village in off years. A similarly iconic location could be chosen for the Winter Games.

I love watching the Olympics. The athletes’ awe-inspiring abilities are given an impressive stage, and it is thrilling to see records broken and hardships overcome. Of course, there are other world athletic competitions out there. But just as with the Oscars telecast, there is nothing quite like the Olympics. The goal of the IOC and the world athletic community should be to return the games to their golden glory, untarnished by scandal and waste.