Monday, November 19, 2012

I'm Grateful for Books, so here's my RIF pledge

I came from a family of readers. Hey we're Jewish and they call the Jews "People of the Book" right? But it's more than that. My Dad was always reading something, even on the john - and yes, the loos in our house are also filled with reading material - I mean there's so much to read and so not enough time, why waste a precious moment? :-) My Mom was also a big reader and she took us to the library every week to pick out new books Beloved books have been handed down the generations - I have my late Aunt Marilyn's 1937 hardcover copy of Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes.

Yes, yes, I know the value and convenience of e-readers and I read some books on my iPad, but ISN'T THIS BEAUTIFUL? And tell me that you are going to hand down a beloved e-reader, much read e-read to your grandchild someday...

Last year at the Hudson Children's Book Festival, I was fortunate to hear Walter Dean Meyer's speak. He is a passionate advocate for literacy - as our National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, his tag line is "Reading is not optional." He spoke about growing up in Harlem, and how he didn't grow up in a house of books but his mother would read magazines to him and then, as soon as he learned to read, she'd have him read to her while she was ironing.

Virginia Woolf wrote about having a room of one's own. When it comes to literacy, it's so powerful for a child to have a book of one's own. And that's why I support Reading is Fundamental. Because I know that there are so many kids who aren't lucky enough to grow up surrounded by books the way I was. Kids who are growing up in neighborhoods where the school librarians have been cut and the library budgets are being cut. Kids who need a book of their own.

This Thanksgiving week, I'm grateful that I was surrounded by books growing up and that I've been able to provide that experience for my own children. To express that gratitude, I'm making a pledge that for every additional follower on Twitter @sarahdarerlitt (excluding p/rn spammers!) between now and midnight on Thanksgiving Day, I will donate $1 to Reading Is Fundamental. I hope you'll join me!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Movie Recommendation: Go see ARGO.

I've got deeply personal reasons for my fascination with covert operations and trade craft (Dad,who unfortunately has Alzheimer's now, was a proud member of AFIO. A few years ago I started playing around with an idea for a middle grade spy novel but I was approaching it from the wrong angle and it went nowhere.

In the course of my research, though, I read Ted Gup's The Book of Honor, The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives, which made me appreciate how the clandestine services risk their lives in the shadows, often pulling off heroic acts which can never be recognized by the public because they are classified.

In light of the recent controversies about the "truth" of the Osama Bin Laden operation and the current politicking about the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and others in Benghaz it's important to remember that while obtaining information is a critical part of espionage,its counterpart is disinformation.

Which brings me to ARGO, a movie I've been desperate to see ever since I first read about it. My only regret is that my father isn't compos mentis enough to have seen the film with us, because he would have loved it.

ARGO is loosely based on the Canadian Caper, a true life covert operation between the CIA and the Canadian Government to exfiltrate six American diplomats who escaped from the Consulate building in Teheran when the Embassy next door was seized and the entire staff taken hostage on November 4th, 1979.

The result is a suspenseful, pulse-pounding, my-boyfriend's-hand-has-nail-marks-in-it-from-the-airport-scene film that does not disappoint. Terrific performances by Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, and John Goodman.

Two important takeaways from the film, IMHO:

1. Disinformation and classified information: The CIA's role in the exfiltration of the six diplomats, particularly the part played by Tony Mendez, wasn't known until 18 years after the fact when the operation was declassified by President Clinton. Knowledge of CIA involvement might well have jeopardized the safety of the Embassy hostages, so full credit for the operation was given to the Canadian Government - which deserved a LOT of credit, don't get me wrong. But this is why I get SERIOUSLY pissed off when certain Presidential candidates try to make political capital out of inflamed situations. And even more pissed off when, in trying to make even more political capital out of that situation, Congressmen blow CIA cover on CSPAN. We don't want to have to add more black stars to the wall at Langley, dammit!

2. Pay attention, really close attention, to the intro, before the movie starts. The history of US involvement in Iran isn't pretty. In 1953, the US staged a coup to overthrow the government of democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq. Mossadeq pissed off the Brits when he nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil company (these days known as BP, Gulf polluter), prompting the US and UK to oust him (OIL, $$$, OIL, $$$, sense a theme here?)leaving the Iranian people under the repressive dictatorship of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for twenty years.

Here's a link to an interesting Canadian Broadcasting piece about Tony Mendez that gives background on the real Canadian Caper.

Friday, September 21, 2012

World Alzheimer's Day

Today is World Alzheimer's Day, and once again I'm celebrating the special person in my life who is afflicted with this devastating disease, my beloved father, Stanley Darer.

Since I wrote about Dad last year on World Alzheimer's Day, his condition has deteriorated somewhat, both physically and mentally. He can't walk as well as he used to, and sometimes has to use a walker, although he doesn't like to. When I visit, I hold his hand. His confusion has definitely increased. It seems to go down in steps, plateau for a while, then deteriorate a bit more. The Awesome Boyfriend asked me if I thought Dad still knew I was his daughter. I said, "No, I don't think so. But his face still lights up when he sees me, and he definitely knows I'm someone who loves him and who he loves."

And deep inside, he still worries about me. I've often told my kids about how difficult it was for me growing up because my dad had the double standard common to his generation between his male and female offspring. It was a source of tremendous resentment and frustration as a teenager.

I still remember exactly where I standing as a young woman in my 20's, working on Wall St and putting myself through business school at night for my MBA in Finance, when my dad told me: "I won't relax till you're married and have a man looking after you."

I was speechless for a moment, thinking of how I'd always worked so hard to prove myself, how I had to work twice as hard as a guy to get credit, deal with sexism constantly, and went ballistic. "Who's looking after me now?!" I shouted.

The other day when I visited Dad, we were sitting on a bench holding hands and he asked me a question he quite often does when I visit: "So are you married?"

These days, the question doesn't make me ballistic. I smile, and explain that I was married, I got divorced, but I have a mensch of a boyfriend that I've been with for six years. Dad smiles, and I know that somewhere, deep inside, it makes him feel better to think I have "a man looking after me."

And I smile, instead of going ballistic, because I know that thought makes him relaxed and happy.

On Rosh Hashanah, I asked The Awesome Boyfriend to come with me to visit, so Dad could see living proof of my "man". Because we'd gone to services, we went in the afternoon, and Dad tends to be more confused then. AB and I think Dad thought the AB was my son, because he kept commenting on how much taller AB was than the last time he'd visited.

We decided to take Dad for a walk in the garden because he seemed really confused and we thought the fresh air and exercise might do him good. On the way outside, we passed some of his friends who were gathered round the TV watching The Sound of Music. And he introduced me to one of the other seniors as HIS CHILD. I almost started crying - because he REMEMBERED. He doesn't remember my name, but he remembered that I was his daughter, at least for that moment, and it meant the world to me.

Here's Dad discussing New Year's Resolutions with Benny

On September 30th, my mother and I are participating in the Walk to End Alzheimers. If you are able to donate to help us reach our fundraising goal, to help find a cure for this horrible disease.



Sunday, September 16, 2012

Gardens, Harry Potter, Politics and how I got my start writing

It’s a beautiful day here in CT, and I finally got around to tending my plants, which like my health, I’ve been neglecting this year. If you ever want to judge my state of stress, look at my house plants. If they are thriving, I’m in a good place. If they are drooping and/or dead, chances are I’m going through a very stressful period.

This morning I finally planted chrysanthemums in my outside planters, replanted the geraniums in them into pots to overwinter inside, took cuttings from the houseplants that hat gotten old and stringy from neglect and planted them into new plots. It made me feel hopeful and reinvigorated. I know not all of the cuttings will survive, but some of them will. It’s like writing a first draft.

Of course after potting there was a huge mess of soil on the front step, so I grabbed a broom out of the garage to sweep it up. And that brought back of memories.

Yes, I was sweeping up with a Firebolt. I don't just have a Firebolt, my friends. I also have a Nimbus 2000.

Way back when being published was just a dream, I started reading the Harry Potter books with my son, who didn't just look like Harry, but, having moved here from the UK, sounded like him, too. Kids at his elementary school thought he WAS Harry. I was a frustrated creative masquerading as a housewife, and when my son was in second grade, I threw that creativity into throwing him the most awesome Harry Potter party ever.

What did that involve?

Here are a few of the highlights:

Potions class: We did experiments with Borax and made Goop

Quidditch Game: Each of the kids at the party got a Nimbus 2000 of their own. I bought all the brooms at Costco - some guy thought I owned a cleaning company and asked me for a job - and almost asphyxiated myself spray painting them. I got a bunch of ping pong balls, wrote point scores on them, and hid them round the garden. Then I spray painted one gold for the Golden Snitch. I hid that one in my pocket for when I wanted the game to end.

The kids "flew" around the garden on their brooms, hunting for the ping pong balls. The best part was that we, the grown ups, got to pelt them with wet sponges (the Bludgers). It was a warm, sunny day, so the kids would come within bludger range with astonishing frequency : ) When they'd expending lots of wonderful energy, I surreptitiously dropped the Golden Snitch and waited for someone to find it to end the game. The guys were very excited to be able to take their brooms home with them.

Sweets: Had local sweet shop, Darlene's Heavenly Desires make me some chocolate frogs. My sister created labels for them. We also had Bertie Botts Every Flavored Beans.

The whole family got in on the creative hijinks. My brother in law Mark played Professor Snape and led the potions class. I was Minerva McGonagall. Lindsay, our then nanny, aka "Mary Poppins, made the most awesome Kings Cross Station sign, which hangs in my garage right where I park my car:

My mother, who had always been artistic and now is finally pursuing it with her pet portrait business, created a portrait of The Fat Lady for the entrance for our Griffyndor Common Room (aka, the dining room where we were going to serve the cake).

Unfortunately, she's a little worse for wear due to the damp in the garage, but she still looks pretty good after 11 years!

I can thank my enthusiasm for Harry Potter for my first ever byline, for my start in both publishing and as a political columnist. It all began with this column, published in the Greenwich Time on April 29th, 2001. Unfortunately, the only copy I could find is the one I had framed (because it was the first thing I'd ever had published) so please bear with me.

"I'm glad my son identifies with Harry. And I don't think that in ten years time he will be out in a wood somewhere performing satanic rituals because we spent many happy hours together, sharing, with great excitement and anticipation, the next chapter of Harry Potter."

Well, it's now ELEVEN years later and I'm pleased to report I was right.

My son is a smart, engaged, kid who likes to read, makes good choices and cares about what goes on in the world. He's a Harry, and I couldn't be more proud. Meanwhile, since then, I've published four books, more political opinion columns than I can count, and at risk of sounding like Annie Wilkes, I can't help but have this feeling that if Jo Rowling and I met over a cuppa one day, we'd have plenty to talk about and become fast friends.

In the meantime, it's time to get back to work and try to look after both my plants and myself better.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Stop making excuses for the inexcusable

This was a letter I sent to The Duke Chronicle, the newspaper at my alma mater, after our winning basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewki (aka Coach K) who is lauded similarly to Paterno, defended Paterno in the New York Times last November

"As a proud Duke alum who is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I was appalled and disgusted by Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s attempt to make excuses for his fellow Coach, Penn State’s Joe Paterno, for not contacting police when informed of a horrific act by then assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. (New York Times, The Quad 11/14/11) Coach K wants us to give Paterno a pass based on his age (“one thing you have to understand is that Paterno is 84 years old) and thus the “immense changes and how social issues are handled in those generations.”

For a man who in June taped a show for ESPN with Paterno about “ethics and integrity and issues related with college athletics,” Krzyzewski’s moral ambivalence and his insistence that Paterno remains a “great man in a horrific situation,” makes clear that he needs to revisit his understanding of integrity, ethics and greatness.

When teaching writing workshops, I always start with character, because exploring human nature is what makes writing such an endlessly fascinating pursuit. Plot discussions focus on throwing stumbling blocks in the character’s way, so he or she is forced to make choices, because in the immortal words of JK Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore (drawing on Sartre) “It is our choices…that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

The point Coach K doesn’t understand, or perhaps chooses, willfully, to miss, is that it’s the choices one makes when faced with such a horrific situation that prove whether one is truly great, not the number of football games or basketball games won.

Joe Paterno has achieved many wonderful things in his 84 years. But like many who could have achieved true greatness, he had a tragic flaw, one that resulted in children who might have been saved being sexually abused. His legacy is rightfully tarnished. Coach K shouldn’t be in the game of making excuses for the inexcusable."

Friday, July 13, 2012

Penn State, leadership and faith

I did a presentation at the CT Writing Project's Young Writer's Institute this morning, and met a High School student who asked me to sign two of my books. She told me she particularly loved CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC because her mother converted from Catholicism to Islam when she married, so there are times when she's sitting in church feeling like Jussy. She also told me about going to a family event at the church her mom grew up in where the priest yelled at her mother to leave and told her she no longer belonged there.

We talked about Confessions and told her that in my experience the people with deep faith, rather than dogmatic faith, are the most accepting, because they recognize we we all pray to one G-d so we should look for the commonalities we share rather than the rituals that divide us.

I've been thinking about the definition of "a good person" recently, especially how one can go through the motions of being a faithful, "good" and even lauded member of the community - a much admired leader - yet beneath the surface have a flaw that makes mockery of this.

I speak, of course, of the late Joe Paterno.

At the time of his death, Paterno was lauded, particularly by members of his church, where he was a regular.

The Dumas' one a fellow Penn State professors and the other, a senior lecturer, lauded Paterno thusly:

"It's not only a great loss for us of a great benefactor and a great man," Mr. Dumas said, "but our country lost. He showed us an example of what it is to be a coach and a teacher."

"And human being," Mrs. Dumas added.

Mr. Dumas continued, "I'm sorry that we could not have had a better ending for this great man. When Victor Hugo died in Paris, everybody ran around the streets shouting, 'Hugo is dead! Hugo is dead! Our hero is dead!' That is the ending I would have liked to have seen for Joe Paterno, because he is our Victor Hugo."

Yesterday, the results of an independent investigation into the sexual abuse scandal and cover up by Louis Freeh was released. I made the mistake of reading it while I was eating lunch. It was truly sickening.

“Four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University — President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno — failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed Sandusky’s activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities. They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims.

Moreover, after McQueary witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in the shower in Feb 9th 2001 and reported it to Paterno on Sat Feb 10th, Paterno waited to inform Curly and Schultz until the following day because he "did not want to interfere with their weekends." Very Christian of him. (seethes)

Paterno then interfered when the plan was to report Sandusky to Dept of Welfare. An email from Curley to Schultz and Spanier says he changed his mind "after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe (Paterno) yesterday."

As a result, Sandusky went on to abuse more children and damage more lives.

Who would make such a choice? Was that the choice of a godly, church going man? Was that the choice of a "great man"? Someone who is "an example of a coach and a teacher"?

No. It's the choice of someone with hubris.It's the choice of someone who would rather sacrifice the lives of innocent young men for the "greater good" of his legacy. If it pricked his conscience at all he could point generosity as a benefactor for good causes and all the fine young men (the ones who weren't as poor and vulnerable and thus escaped Sandusky's clutches) to graduate from the football program at Penn State, the ones who helped to earn him his all-time Division 1 football wins record.

Paterno, the Dumas', the higher leadership of Penn State, the students who rioted when Paterno was fired and the folks who raised a statue to this man, are all in denial, and denial is one of the biggest factors that allows sexual abuse to continue. The perpetrator is, of course, the most guilty party, but those around the perpetrator who choose denial are complicit in the crime.

Sandusky could have been stopped in 1998. Paterno lied to the grand jury about his knowledge of that incident. Sandusky could have certainly been stopped in 2001. But the ego of a supposedly "great" man, a man held up as an "example"caused him to make choices that resulted in the abuse of more children.

And did Paterno go to his grave feeling bad about this? Apparently not. Two days ago, a never published op ed he wrote before his death shows his continued arrogance and denial. It is all about protecting his legacy with not a word of compassion for Sandusky's victims. They don't even rate a mention.

I only started speaking publicly about my own abuse last year, and part of the reason I have continued to do so, and now have offered my services as a speaker to The Center for Sexual Abuse Crisis Counseling and Education is so that both teens and adults understand the importance of destroying the culture of complicity and denial. Denial is my sworn enemy and as Winston Churchill said, "whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

We shall fight it in the religious institutions, we shall fight it in the Universities, we shall fight it in families, we shall fight it in schools, we shall fight it in the military, we shall fight it in Congress, we shall fight it in our communities, until our children our safe.

Friday, June 29, 2012

What I learned from kids about Accelerated Reader

Last night I taught the first of a series of creative writing workshops at the C.H. Booth library in Newtown CT. It's the second year I've taught these workshops and despite the travel to get there and back (it's an hour each way) I really love doing them. I teach two groups - one rising 6-7 graders and the other rising 8-9 graders, each for an hour and a half.

In our session last night, we talked about how writers get ideas and did some brainstorming exercises.

As a writer, I find teaching these workshops incredibly energizing. After all, these are my people, the kids I write for - okay, maybe some are little younger, but I do plan to write a middle grade again some day. I learn so much from them by listening.

Last night, what I heard broke my heart. In my younger group, the 6-7 graders, I asked the kids for some books that they'd really loved. And from one of the most promising writers in the group, I heard this: "I read this really long book and it was a waste because it wasn't in Accelerated Reader."

I died a little inside. Actually a lot. And then I said to her, "It's NEVER a waste to read a book you enjoy."

The girl next to her said that she'd started reading the Harry Potter series and loved it but then she "got stuck in Accelerated Reader."

This generated a whole discussion amongst the kids about AR. One girl complained that she likes to read high school books but because she is at 8th grade level on AR she is only allowed to read those books. Out of ten kids in the class, there was one kid who was happy with AR, and that was because she'd won a pizza party with two friends because she'd got to 500 AR points and it was a big source of pride and accomplishment.

But this is a kid who is involved with Odyssey of the Mind, multiple after school activities - a clearly bright and motivated child. Is anyone telling me that AR got her to read and that she wouldn't have been reading anyway? That she couldn't have been motivated without "points"?

During the break between my class I spoke to the librarian who runs my CW workshop about how heartbroken I was to hear this. She said that the school librarian at the elementary school was a big proponent of AR, because it had shown marked benefits with the reluctant and average readers.

I'm not convinced training kids like puppies with "treats" is the way to turn them into lifelong readers. I had the privilege of hearing our National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Walter Dean Myers speak in May at the Hudson Children's Book Festival, and he convinced me more than ever that it's adults modeling enthusiasm for books and reading and getting books into the home EARLY through programs like Reading is Fundamental and First Book that really makes a difference. That and investing in early childhood education.

Instead we are cutting library funding and school librarians, cutting funding to literacy programs, and school systems are spending money on programs like AR, because it seems like an easy, one size fits all fix, instead of letting teachers work their magic. And in doing so, we end up with kids thinking that reading a really long book they enjoyed is a "waste." That makes my blood boil. It makes me wonder who the hell is making decisions about education in this country and if they're doing for benefit of kids or for financial benefit.

For more on Accelerated Reader from those in the trenches here's some further reading:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What kids want to know from a real live author

I'm going back to the wonderful and incredibly picturesque CH Booth library in Newtown, CT to teach writing workshops for young people this summer. It's a five week creative writing course, starting this Thursday.

Before the course begins, librarian extraordinaire, Margaret Brown, who organizes a series of writing workshops for kids throughout the year, including mystery and poetry,
sent out a letter from me to all the course participants, in which I shared three of the books that I'd read recently that I was really excited about (SEE YOU AT HARRY'S by Jo Knowles, ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mullaly Hunt and CODE NAME VERITY by ELIZABETH WEIN)and asked them to send me three questions that they wanted me to be sure to answer by the end of the course. Bear in mind that the kids range from 11-14.

The questions are so awesome I just have to share:

When do you end a paragraph?
I would like to learn more about punctuation.
A personal question, when did you start to write books?

How do you connect your ideas?
How do you make the suspense last?*
How do you come up with the characters?

What is being an author like?
How do they get their ideas for writing?
How do they publish their books?

How do you get your first book published without knowing who to go to?
Did anyone reccomend a publisher or did you ask some one about it?
Has any of your books ever been rejected? If so, how did you feel?

When did you start writing?
Did you have trouble getting published?
Do you ever get "writers block"? If so, how do you get through it?
What's your bestt advice for kids my age who are hoping to become a writer in their future?


How do you get a book published?
How does your book become a nutmeg? (CT State Award)
How do you get to be an author?
What kinds of writing are we working on this summer?
How are we developing our ideas?
Are you working on any books/projects as of now?

And this, my absolute favorite:

If you were seen in public, do you get surrounded by fans, asking for your autograph?

Answer: Yes, in my dreams...but then I wake up!

I'll add more as they come in.

Authors, please feel free to chime in with your advice to these enthusiastic creative minds. I told them that if I didn't know the answers, I would definitely know someone who did!

* Funnily enough, I try to read a book on craft before I start each big revision, one related to what I think I need to focus on in that revision. For the MS I am currently tearing apart like an 80's suit with shoulder pads, it was this book:

So hopefully I'll have some good tips that I'm actually trying to use myself!

Friday, June 8, 2012

How we brought THE INVISIBLE WAR to the Avon Theatre

Sometimes a news item reaches out from the radio and grabs you by throat, and you know you have to write about it. That's what happened when I was driving down Putnam Avenue one day and heard a report that a female serving in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan was more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. The Department of Defense estimates there were 22,800 violent sex crimes in the military in 2011. A staggering 20% of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted. Of these , women between the ages of 18-21 accounted for more than half of the victims.

I became so angry as I listened that my hands shook as they gripped the steering wheel. When I get angry about something, my first thought is, "I have to DO something about this." My second thought is "I have to WRITE about this."

I spent the weekend following researching material for a young adult novel about how a deployed mom’s experience with military sexual trauma impacts the entire family. In the course of my research, I learned about the documentary THE INVISIBLE WAR, which had just won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Created by Oscar®- and Emmy®-nominated filmmaker Kirby Dick (THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, TWIST OF FAITH) and Emmy®-nominated producer and director Amy Ziering (OUTRAGE, THE MEMORY THIEF), the film paints a startling picture of the extent of the problem of sexual assault in the military—the number of assaults in the last decade alone is believed to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Focusing on the powerfully emotional stories of multiple rape victims, THE INVISIBLE WAR is a moving indictment of the systemic cover-up of military sex crimes, chronicling the women’s struggles to rebuild their lives and fight for justice. It also features hard-hitting interviews with high-ranking military officials and members of Congress that reveal the perfect storm of conditions that exist for rape in the military, its long-hidden history, and what can be done to bring about much-needed change.

I immediately contacted film’s producers to inquire about arranging a local screening and they put me in touch with Ivonne Zucco, Executive Director of The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education in Stamford, CT, who was also interested in bringing the film to the area. “As part of our work at The Center, we need to bring awareness about sexual assault at so many different levels. When I heard about the film, I knew that screening it was one more way of increasing knowledge about an issue that should concern us all. Change needs to occur in all areas of society and this film is an originator of great awareness.” Together, Ivonne and I worked with Adam Birnbaum of Stamford’s Avon Theater to bring THE INVISIBLE WAR to the Avon on Monday June 11th at 7:30pm. The event is free to the public with a panel discussion following the screening.

One thing I want to make clear is that The Invisible War isn't anti-military. Many of the women in the film come from families with long histories of military service. Director Kircy Dick says the rape survivors featured in the film agreed to participate on condition that it not be an anti-military film. “All of our subjects were very idealistic and proud to have served,” Dick says. “Regardless of one’s opinion of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, we all can agree that people risking their lives should be protected from assault by their own soldiers.”

But as with all instances of sexual abuse and assault, admitting there is a problem and discussing it openly, learning to fight a culture of silence, coverup and denial is the first step to effecting change. As part of my research I attended the first annual Truth and Justice Summit in DC, organized by the Service Women's Action Network. Brigadier General (Ret.) Thomas Cuthbert, who has acted as senior advisor to both the Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies and the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services, stood in front of a ballroom full of women and men, (sexual assault in the military isn't just a women's issue) and told them that the system was working - when it patently hadn't - and it was a matter of "teaching kids to say no to a senior officer." I was absolutely floored by his tone deafness and surprised, frankly, that he was able to get out of the room alive after saying that to a room full of traumatized people trained in the art of warfare. I wanted to teach him a thing or two about sexual trauma, and I'm only a civilian. If Cuthbert is the kind of military expert advising the Pentagon, it's no wonder the culture and the system is stacked against women receiving justice.

I hope you'll join us on Monday evening at the Avon for the screening. Supporting the troops means every soldier who is proud to serve.

For more on The Invisible War see this eflier.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Things I wish I'd written

I heard an interview with Jeanette Winterson on NPR the other day, and knew I had to get her book, "Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal?"

I'm only on page 25, but I've already highlighted passages and tonight in the bath there was one that had me saying, "Yes. THIS."

Here it is:

What you are pursuing is meaning - a meaningful life. There's the hap - the fate, the draw that is yours, and it isn't fixed, but changing the course of the stream , or dealing new cards, whatever metaphor you want to use - that's going to take a lot of energy. There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realize that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else's terms.

Hells to the yes. It took me 40 years to realize that, but better late than never.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Rich Handsome Stalker dreamboats - Oh My!

A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, bought me Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, for my birthday. Luckily I could read it on my lovely new iPad, so my daughter didn't see me reading it. This is not one I would ever recommend to a young woman- or any woman, for that matter.

Let's take the writing first. I know this was first written as fan fiction and then published by a small press. Did an editor ever see these pages. Ever? Or even a critique group? Was everyone so distracted by the sex scenes that they didn't notice the constant lip-biting, how "Oh My" became Possibly the Most Annoying Signal for Female Arousal Ever, and the dear Lord if I hear about this one more time I'm gonna throttle the beyotch "Inner Goddess" who alternated between gymnastics and dance moves whenever it looked like sex was a possibility. And this is was often, let me tell you. They don't call this book "Mommy P*rn" for nothing. My "Inner Goddess" is bordering on Traumatic Brain Injury from banging my head against the wall in frustration from the overuse of banal words and phrases. Has this woman never heard of a thesaurus?

Do I sound like I'm ranting? Well, hold on to your hats, people, because Auntie Sarah has only just got started. Now I'm getting to what I really HATE about this book.

It doesn't surprise me at all that this started as Twilight fan fiction. I was always happy that my daughter was bored with Twilight after reading the first chapter and never read any of the other books, because I forced myself to read the whole series and the fourth book had me absolutely enraged. The whole series bothered me because Bella was such a weak and undeveloped character who was defined by the boys and how young girls were falling in love with the idea of this "love" between her and Edward, which had all the characteristics of an abusive relationship. Like hello young teens - when a guy breaks into your bedroom to watch you sleep? THAT IS NOT ROMANTIC!!! That is EFFING CREEPY! CALL THE POLICE AND GET A RESTRAINING ORDER!!! And book 4 - where she ends up bruised and brutalized after sex but it's okay because they waited and did it in the sanctity of marriage...OMFG. That is SO NOT a healthy message for teenage girls to be reading and idealizing as a love relationship.

So along comes this Fifty Shades of Grey (oh, yeah, she actually calls him "Fifty Shades" as a nick name) which takes Edward and puts him on steroids. He's handsomer ('cause he's not so pale). He's younger by at least a century. He's richer and self-made to boot. He's even more tortured and broody with a dark sekrit past. And boy, is he even more effed up and creepier. He REALLY DOES STALK Ana. Right after they meet he has a PI investigate her so he can just show up at her place of work. He buys the company she gets a job at because she won't work for him. When she flies across the country to visit her mother because she needs some time and space to think, guess what? He just happens to show up in the bar where she's having drinks with Mom - and he's got a hotel room in that hotel. Does Ana think this weird? Well, a little means he LOVES HER SO MUCH.


This is what I hate about the whole Twilight phenomenon and now this Mommy S & M crap that it has spawned. Right now, women's rights are under attack from all sides and we have a generation of teen girls who are reading this stuff and thinking that a man being abusively controlling is ROMANTIC. That it's a sign of the ULTIMATE LOVE.

Maybe it's because I've been in enough dysfunctional relationships that I know both the compelling seductiveness and the dark, dehumanizing destructiveness that comes when the initial glow has worn off. I know how hard it is to rebuild your sense of self when you've had it destroyed and I hate that any woman or any girl should think that this is romance. That cutting you off from your friends is romance. That the guy having female friends but that not allowing the woman to have male friends because he's jealous is a sign of love. It's not. It's a sign of being controlling and abusive.

Well, that's my rant over for now. I'm off to write some more empowering books books for teens.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Travels with Steinbeck

As anyone who follows me on Goodreads might have ascertained by now, I've got a bad case of reading ADD at the moment. My "currently reading" list has 5 or 6 books on it, and that doesn't include the books I have lying around that I pick up and peruse because I'm waiting to add them to the currently reading list. One of those is Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck.

I'm having a major mid-life love affair with Steinbeck at the moment, something I talk about today in a guest post at the Nerdy Book Club. This morning, I picked up Travels with Charley and on the first page found some words of wisdom that inspired me as I'm beginning the first draft of a new W-I-P.

A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality,uniqueness. A journey is a person itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing , and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass-bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this, a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

YES! I thought. YES! YES! YES! Not just about the physical journeys. Not just about marriage (but a zillion times yes to that, too.)
But also, I thought, substitute a novel for a trip and that's how I feel every time I start writing a new book.

One of the aspects of craft I've been working very hard to learn more about is plot and structure, because I've always tended to be more of a pantser. In fact, another thing I'm doing today is starting an online plot workshop with the awesome (and hilarious)Rhonda Helms. The software program Scrivener is a practical tool that's helped me develop my plotting skills.

But ultimately, no matter how much I try to plot in advance, I still have to write my way into the book. That's why I've become such an ardent believer in the "write it as fast as possible shitty first draft." Because as much as I might try to control the thing in advance, I have set myself free to experience the journey before it finds me and reveals its personality.

Thanks again, John.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A letter to my "Wonderful Child"

Last weekend I attended the wonderful retreat for published writers and illustrators,Kindling Words. I credit KW with saving my writing life back in 2006, when I was going through a case of the second book blues so severe that I wondered if I should give up this dream of being a writer after all and go get a "real" job, just like I'd done in my 20's and 30's because everyone said I should.

Kindling Words is a place where I go to rejuvenate, to be inspired, to learn craft, to commune with fellow creative souls. It's the perfect kick off for my writing year. This year I finished the revisions for my latest YA novel to send to my agent, while in the back of my brain the idea for a middle grade was percolating.

On the first night of KW, we always have an activity to get our creative juices flowing. Two years ago, it was a fantastic and fun African drum circle.

This year, we had an acting professor from Circle in the Square lead us in some exercises to get us in touch with ourselves and each other. I was a drama geek in high school, so I usually love this kind of stuff, but the minute he mentions "child exercise" I tensed.

The exercise was to find our "wonderful child." And I tried to do that, and I couldn't. And I ended up lying on the floor in the ballroom of a Vermont Inn sobbing. I told the professor that I don't have a Wonderful Child - but that I've worked very hard to be a Wonderful Grownup, and I like who I am now.

I have to apologize to Mary Lee Donovan, of Candlewick Press (Sorry Mary Lee!) because she had to do the next exercise with me, where we had to look into each other's eyes without speaking for many minutes, because the eyes are the windows of the soul. My eyes were all red and watery and I can't imagine looking into my soul at that point was a whole lot of fun.

The community at KW is so amazing. I had so many people come up to me afterward and tell me that I DO have a Wonderful Child. It made me want to cry all over again, but for a different reason.

The the next morning, I wrote this letter to my Wonderful Child, the one I couldn't find:

Dear Wonderful Child:

Last night I was sent on another mission to find you, and as usual, it ended in tears. I know you understand why I my already tense shoulder muscles went into spasm when I heard the words “child exercise” and acid production in my stomach went into overdrive, causing reflux my throat. You get it, because you were there. You know that when sexual abuse is perpetrated on a child so young they don’t even have the words to express what is happening to them, the post-traumatic stress effects last a lifetime, through drug use, a suicide attempt, bulimia, abusive relationships, and untold hours and too much money to want to think about worth of therapy. You might think that you’ve “dealt with it” but then all it takes is the student reaction to the story about a pedophile football coach in PA or hearing people making ignorant comments at Virtus workshop you have to attend in order to help out for your daughter’s musical theater production at the local Catholic church, or a guided exercise at a writing retreat and BAM! You’re right back in that place of horror and pain, the place where you’re a small, frightened child, scared in the darkness without a voice.

But the thing is, that’s not who you are now. Because you’re not a victim, you’re a survivor. You’ve worked hard. Even when all your bricks feel down and you had build them up again, one brick at a time, slowly and painfully, you never quit. And it’s paid off. Because now you do have a voice. That’s what finally , at age 38, allowing yourself to pursue your dream of being a writer gave you. And you use that voice in your political columns, to speak out when you see injustice, speaking for those who still might not have one. In your novels, you write for the kids like you, the ones who feel defective, like there’s something wrong with them that can never be cured, who feel like the wound that was inflicted on them, usually through no fault of their own, has left them too flawed and scared to ever find success, happiness and love.

You write because you want them to know that they’re wrong. You write because you want them to know that there’s hope. You promise to never lie to them, ever, because you know that denial is one of the most destructive weapons adults use on children. So you don’t pretend that the road will be easy, but you let them know that survival and, better yet, happiness, is possible.

You do that because in possibility lies hope. And hope will help them get through the hard times now, so they, too, can grow up to become adults they like better.

I might not be able to find my Wonderful Child in exercises like the one we did, but she's the voice within me when I write.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Dear Teens: A little advice about relationships and trust

So there was this story in the New York Times today Young, in Love and Sharing Everything, including a Password. Apparently:

 It has become fashionable for young people to express their affection for each other by sharing their passwords to e-mail,Facebook and other accounts. Boyfriends and girlfriends sometimes even create identical passwords, and let each other read their private e-mails and texts.
Already, I'm shaking my head and feeling all "get off my lawn", but I continue reading.

In a 2011 telephone survey, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 30 percent of teenagers who were regularly online had shared a password with a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend.
 SMH. I am reaching for my Tums and my box of Clairol Perfect 10. But wait, there's more!
Rosalind Wiseman, who studies how teenagers use technology and is author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” a book for parents about helping girls survive adolescence, said the sharing of passwords, and the pressure to do so, was somewhat similar to sex.

Sharing passwords, she noted, feels forbidden because it is generally discouraged by adults and involves vulnerability. And there is pressure in many teenage relationships to share passwords, just as there is to have sex.

“The response is the same: if we’re in a relationship, you have to give me anything,” Ms. Wiseman said.

And the part that made me go "WTF? Seriously, what are these kids ON?!!":

“It’s a sign of trust,” Tiffany Carandang, a high school senior in San Francisco, said of the decision she and her boyfriend made several months ago to share passwords for e-mail and Facebook. “I have nothing to hide from him, and he has nothing to hide from me.”
“That is so cute,” said Cherry Ng, 16, listening in to her friend’s comments to a reporter outside school. “They really trust each other.” 
Okay kids. Hold onto your hats. Auntie Sarah is about to rant.

Full disclosure: I am not an expert on relationships. I have been in...well, a LOT of dysfunctional relationships in the course of my forty-something years.

But let me give you the benefit of my many, many years of experience and therapy.*

Reading each other's emails and texts isn't intimacy. It's spying. It does not, actually imply that you trust each other. It reveals the exact opposite about your relationship.

Just like a fire, a relationship needs oxygen. It doesn't get that if you are stifling each other. Relationships work best when you are both your own person, confident in yourselves, each with your own interests and passions and your own private spaces. THEN you come together to share and reveal, slowly, gradually in a process that can take a lifetime if you are both thoughtful and evolving human beings. Therein lies the intimacy.

Anyone else find this article seriously depressing?

*This is one of the advantages of getting old if you get therapy. You learn things from your dysfunctional experiences as a youth and it enables you to live a happier life when everything is starting to sag and you're reaching for the Clairol Perfect 10 box. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Why I enjoy revising my will

I met with my lawyer to revise my will yesterday. The last time I did it was in 2007, not long after my divorce was finalized. I figured given the acrimonious nature of my divorce, it probably was a good idea that I change my advance medical directive so that my ex no longer was the person who decided if they should pull the plug on me in the event I was incapacitated, or had power of attorney over my affairs.

When I signed that revised will,  I was so happy. The lawyer and the person who witnessed it said that they'd never seen someone so thrilled to be signing their last will and testament, but I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me, because I'd organized things so that if anything happened to me, I knew everything was organized for my kids in what I hoped would be the best way possible, and with the values I'd tried to teach them while I was alive.

I was prompted into this revision by two things. Firstly, a tweet from Neil Gaiman linking to old blog post of his about literary trusts .  This was something I'd never thought about before. My literary legacy. When I did my 2007 will, I only had one book out. Now I have four out, not to mention eight years worth of published political columns, several essays, and many archive boxes full of unpublished work. So the literary executor became something I really needed to consider.

The other thing was that The Awesome Boyfriend, who I'd only been dating for a short time when I revised the will in 2007, is now a permanent and important part of mine and my kids' lives. We aren't married, but if anything happened to me, I wanted to make sure that the courts recognized that.

Looking back over my old will and thinking about the changes I wanted to make, made me appreciate how much my life has changed for the better in the last four years. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the crises that hit on a day to day basis (because OMG, they do) but sometimes it takes revising your will and looking death the face to make you realize that you've actually come a long way, baby.

If you haven't made a will, please don't put it off, especially if you have kids. It's SO important.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A little rant from the mom of an Aspie

On Boxing Day, the New York Times published a really lovely article about two college students with Asperger's Syndrome, Jack Robinson and Kirsten Lindsmith, and how they are navigating the difficulties of a relationship in which both of them have similar problems reading social cues. I don't say "lack of empathy, because as the mother of an Asperger's son, I've found him to be extremely empathetic. It's just that he has a hard time reading faces and social cues, so he doesn't always know when you're upset unless it's VERY CLEAR. (Crying hysterically is usually a dead giveaway, but I try not to do that in front of my kids too often.)

I mean let's face it. It's hard enough to manage relationships when you're allegedly "neuro typical." How many of us have misinterpreted our partner's expressions or actions? *raises hand*

When my son was going through the diagnosis processes at age five, I pretty much knew it was Aspergers because it explained everything I'd been worried about since he was 18 months old perfectly. I read everything I could get my hands on, and although in some ways it was comforting, because I finally knew what I was dealing with and could take action to help him, instead of having all these amorphous worries, in other ways it created a whole host of new anxieties. I woke up at 3am, crying, and asking my now ex-husband, "Do you think he'll ever get married?" It wasn't the actually married part I worried about - it's that I want my son to have connections, because to me, human connection and relationships are the most important part of being on this planet, and I could already tell from observing him on the playground at school that unlike kids perhaps further along the spectrum, my son wanted them but couldn't figure out how to initiate them.

So I loved this article. It gave me hope.

But then I started seeing people making jokes about a correction that the New York Time posted afterwards.

Okay, I admit. It's kind of funny to see a "My Little Pony" correction in relation to a front page New York Times story.'s the thing. I don't think the a lot of the people who are laughing about this understand why this correction is so important to Kirsten Lindsmith, who referred to Twilight Sparkle as the character she visualizes to cheer herself up when she feels sad or anxious. What they need to understand is that a person with AS could perseverate about a mistake like that for days. Months. For my writer friends, imagine you were featured on the front page of the New York Times and they got the name of your book wrong! Do you think you'd be laughing? I think not. I can just imagine the angsty phone calls to publicists and agents. "THE FRONT PAGE OF THE NEW YORK FREAKING TIMES AND THEY DIDN'T EVEN GET MY BOOK TITLE RIGHT!!!" *sobs* *reaches for tissues and chocolate*

So imagine you're Kristen and you have this safe place, a strategy that you have to help calm yourself and you just told the world about it and then...some reporter effed it up!! And now people are laughing about it when you try to make it right.

All I'm saying is, it's okay to have a chuckle. But at least while you're chuckling make an effort to understand.