I learned something yesterday.

When using a recipe from the internet, don’t be persuaded by a colorful photo of a succulent dish in which a creamy, thick sauce has settled over pasta, meat, and veggies.

In fact, you might want to ask yourself, “Are all the the flavors this photo implies actually listed in the recipe?”

If the answer is no, you might want to look at a few more recipes.

If you go with the picture that displays a bowl of what looks like delicious pasta primavera, oblivious to the fact that the recipe itself calls for no cheese or cream, you have only yourself to blame for a sauce that tastes like skim milk and flour, with some white wine and generic Italian herbs thrown in.

The dog enjoyed it most, but even she would have preferred something cheesy.

What makes Game of Thrones, and all really compelling stories, so great?

Everyone in that book and show, every single solitary person, named or unnamed, ongoing players or incidental  walk-ons, is passionately advancing their own self-interest.  They know what they want and they bite and scream, kill, plot, manipulate, and die for it.

96748a784dfb2c9e87dd7d1f39b4f09fOne character through the first few books, and only one, was known for her passivity. She was a young girl in a dream world, thinking the sadistic Joffrey was her true-love prince, then that a handsome knight would rescue her, etc. That was Sansa, and until recently (when her attitude changed) she was the most unpopular person in the books. She did nothing really wrong but she didn’t fight for what she wanted. Not fighting seemed to be what she wanted–the Cinderella complex in Westeros.

Readers despised her. Proves my point, huh?

Good detective stories start with someone who wants something very badly. Badly enough to kill for it? would be the cliché comeback. The inheritance. The beautiful woman. To not be exposed. Unless they’re willing to kill for it, there’s not much of a story. And the detective wants something too, which drives their pursuit of the evildoer.

Think about the classic detective stories. There’s the nobleman who wants the compromising picture of himself with an adventuress. The drug kingpin who wants more money and influence, the flunkies who will maim to rise up in the organization, and the detectives with heartbreaking backstories which slowly emerge. A good plot brings out all these passions.

Thrillers: Secret societies with devotees who give their lives, over centuries, to protect their treasure. Bad guys want riches and both sides throw an endless stream of operatives into the fray, all willing to kill or be killed. Ivy League professors with physical stamina want to save the world, kiss the girl, and get back to the classroom.

rexfeatures-1998559dWar stories revolve around that kill or be killed mentality. Romances revolve around passion and sexual tension. Westerns throw misogynists and misfits into a setting with no rules and lots of guns. Fantasy? The topic is broad, but does anyone doubt what Katniss wants? As well as any character in the Hunger Games? That’s another series in which even the incidental folks are clearly driven by specific needs.

Every story worth reading makes you root for the hero,  and you can’t really do that if he or she has no deep desires, no wish to fulfill, no purpose.  That is the problem of one book I’m reading now: it started out with a bang, a woman leaves her husband for a disastrous affair. But once that ends, about a fifth of the way into the book, readers become mired in everyday angst and unimportant encounters. I don’t care about the hero or her dates and emails anymore.  I don’t see where this story is going.

In contrast, Gone Girl started with a missing wife and a narrator who flat out told us he was lying to the police. Who could put the book down? We had to find out what he had to find out: who took her? Or did he know? He wanted passionately to clear himself. Gone Girl presents a small cast but each person was willing to destroy the others to get what they wanted.

Ramp up the stakes and desires, and you’ve got Game of Thrones.

If you’ve read any advice on writing fiction, you’ve probably come across the excellent idea that every book or scene start with our hero wanting something, even something mundane. A glass of water that gets them up in the middle of the night. To forget their awful mess of a life, so they spin fantasies about the people they pass while riding a train to nowhere.  A new job for a little extra money that leads them into adventure.

Yes! I can put two and two together!

moby_dick_by_alexiussHerman Melville in Moby Dick used a brilliant twist to hone and sharpen everyone’s desires: he put them all on a ship in the Atlantic, where all anyone could truly desire was a successful voyage. That meant they all wanted to slaughter whales and make bucks. Then, led by their obsessed captain, they all wanted the white whale.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the slaves dream of freedom, while the varied cast of white characters enjoy the lives that they’ve chosen – either with slaves facilitating their lifestyles, or by venting their cruelty on said slaves, making commerce of slaves, etc.

The title character in The Great Gatsby was driven to spend years building himself into someone Daisy would love, but his world was populated by shallow, lesser souls who wanted desperately to stay drunk and convince themselves they were having fun. Tom wanted to hold onto what was his. Daisy wanted it all, but like Sansa, she wanted the men to make up her mind for her. Their passions drove them all, and Nick, bless him, wanted none of it in the end.

250px-masha_heddle_hboI want to find the man who killed my father and duel with him. I want true love and will break hearts and marriages to get it.

The best books manage to imbue desires and motivations into every character. I don’t need to know each innkeeper’s backstory, though occasionally it’s given. And later, when one’s dead body is hung up by vengeful brigands, her story becomes complete, even though, in the vast scheme of George R.R. Martin’s world, she didn’t matter at all, wasn’t even a plot point. I’m not sure she even had a name, but I remember her.

aid1079978-728px-shop-for-vintage-clothing-step-2Do you know someone who likes to dress in period clothes? Maybe yourself? Who lives for Halloween so they can bring out their real woolen Air Force uniform or cinch-waisted Donna Reed dress?

Harpers Bazaar ran an essay on some New York City folks (including the author, Zoe Beery) who do this everyday and who form their community.

They live normal lives, but they dress in vintage clothes. Dressing becomes, I think, part of an art form and a way of dealing with the world and making each day special. That’s me talking, not what the article says. The article is fascinating in and of itself, so I hold you read it.

Photo by Tyler Joe, of Gretchen Fenston, shown in Harpers Bazaar.

Photo by Tyler Joe, of Gretchen Fenston, shown in Harpers Bazaar.

It fascinates me because I brushed up against that world years ago, and decided not to go there. I bought a beautiful 1950s black-and-royal-blue handkerchief skirt and a few other gorgeous items, but never wore them outside of Halloween. I did not have the nerve to be that different, even on an occasional basis. I do get the passion and the love these people have for their clothes and their look. They are touching and wearing the past, bringing it to life and making it fun. “We create a bubble that exists alongside reality,” says Beery.

It’s more than a fashion choice; when you dress like this it defines you to others, just as displaying body piercings and spiked mohawks, or wearing a nun’s habit does.

But it is time-intensive. Besides searching out the costumes, one must keep them in repair. Like the ladies’ maids in Downton Abbey, spending their evenings sewing, repairing, and cleaning the employer’s gloves, hems, stockings, and more. That’s what it takes to hold fragile and aging clothes together. For the folks in the article, this is all-consuming and I suppose it is what separates them from the occasional dresser-uppers.

d1bea0c6fd58a9a3d745dcc493530d4eFor those that just want to play, not immerse themselves, there are other avenues. Disneyland has something called Dapper Days. It used to be surprising and fresh: on an appointed day, a few hundred people would go to Disneyland wearing vintage clothes from their favorite era. Then it became a few thousand. Now it’s a big ol’ production at every Disney park, but still lots of fun.

In Southern California, we’ve had Gatsby Picnics, Stage Door Canteens, and Victoriana Faires (an offshoot of the Renaissance Faire, which has become a fantasy character extravaganza, replete with crowds of fairies and barbarians along with the requisite wenches, knights, and jesters). There are re-enactment events for every taste and era, from Roman Legion encampments to Civil War battles and Jane Austen balls during the holidays. The Club Cicada in downtown L.A. (the place where Angelina Jolie blew up the ladies room in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, if that rings a bell) now hosts 1940s Hollywood dances with big swing bands, and everyone comes in costume.

It’s been going on for awhile, hasn’t it? The Victoriana Faire disappeared in the 1990s, the Gatsby Picnic has a 20-year-history, and that’s just in my corner of the country.

Zoe Beery mentions in her article that most of those who dress vintage are white, and wonders why.

I’m reminded of a scene from the last season of Deep Space 9 (yes, eventually everything goes back to Star Trek). Indulge me.

428644_1272212174679_fullIn Deep Space 9, there is a club modeled on the 1950s Vegas scene. Vic Fontaine, played by a gorgeous James Darren, reigns as everyone’s “Pally,” confidant, and life coach. And he would always end the show with a song, backed up by his swing band, while our favorite characters danced, dressed to the nines like Sinatra or Lena Horne. Got it?

OK, so the captain of Deep Space 9 never goes there. He is a black man, and cannot see the point of pretending to party in an era when black people were segregated and treated so poorly. But as his girlfriend tells him, going to Vic’s doesn’t negate the past. “It (Vic’s) reminds us that we are no longer bound by any limitations. Except the ones we impose on ourselves.”

So maybe that’s why folks like to dress up: It reminds them that they can enjoy the trappings of the past, without limiting themselves to the attitudes of the past. A woman can dress like Daisy or Donna Reed but still run her own company or program computers.

That doesn’t answer the question of why dresser-uppers are largely white. I hazard a guess that the racial attitudes of the past are too close and painful to make light of. And making light is what it’s all about.

enhanced-buzz-28238-1360941672-9According to CNN, the “iconic talking bear from the late 80s, is back — and he’s flaunting some timely upgrades.”

eyechartcolorTimely upgrades, in this case, means LCD eyes that flash forty expressions, including turning into stars or hearts. C-Net calls them Emoji Eyes.

The new version won’t be available for close to a year, however: August 2017.

Here’s my Teddy Ruxpin story. I was working at a smallish car stereo company, small enough that everyone knew each other and often ate lunch together. And it was in Southern California, so the chief technician (there were only two) was gorgeous part-time actor who actually had a small part in Howard the Duck.

And everyone was a little silly in the 80s.

Someone brought their child’s Teddy Ruxpin in to see if it could be fixed — I forget what the problem was. But soon, we were shrieking and moaning because it turns out you could put any cassette into Teddy and make him move, not just an official Teddy Ruxpin storytime cassette.

So of course our nerdish rock stars had to load Teddy up with AC/DC and a few other choice bands and let him loose. A Big Bird doll with the same type of cassette player in his well-padded posterior also go the acid-rock treatment.

We laughed till our orifices leaked. Good times.

So here’s a joke I heard a while back:

A woman is teaching her daughter to cook a roast.

“The last step, before you put the meat in the pan, is to cut off just a little from both ends,” Mom says.


“Because you do. Now you lift it – “

“But why cut the meat off at the ends?”

Mom thinks. She doesn’t know. “Because that’s the way Grandma taught me.”

So they call Grandma and ask her, and she answers, “Because that’s the way my mother taught me to cook a roast. You always do that.”

Well, Great-Grandma is still around. So the next time the family visits, Mom and Grandma and the youngest girl ask her: “Nana, remember how, when you cook a roast, you always cut the ends off the meat before you put it in the pan?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Well, why do we do that?”

“I don’t know why you do it,” the old lady says. “I did it because my pan was too small to fit the whole roast.”

That story comes to mind whenever I see someone doing something that makes no sense, because they were taught that way. Like one lady who will only rinse dishes in cold water. That is engraved in her mind from way back: Dishes must be rinsed in cold water. I am free to picture a caring mother worrying that her little girl might be burned by turning on too much hot water, but to this lady, it’s simply the truth of the universe. Rinse dishes in cold water.

This first hit me when a friend helped me unpack and set up my kitchen after moving. “Where do you want your silverware?”

“Right here,” I pointed to the drawer.

“OK, so the knives will go here.”

“No,” I said. “I want that drawer for the big spoons and whisks and stuff.”

“THOSE should go in that drawer,” my friend said, and pointed to a drawer closer to the stove.

It made sense to put them close to the stove, but in my mind it was wrong. Those utensils always went in the drawer under the silverware. And to my friend, they always went next to the stove. We batted it around for ten minutes before we realized that there is no right or wrong about where to put things in a kitchen. We were bickering about where our mothers put them, which was dogma to each of us.

I touched on this in my previous post, about science proving the Five-Second-Rule wrong. The real result of that research to me (because the Rule was a joke, nothing more) is that kids grow up believing the things their mothers drum into their heads. Knives go here. Dishes get washed in cold water. Pick up a cookie within five seconds and there won’t be any germs on it. Those people are dirty and bad. Always wash your hands after making pee-pee.

We never question those things. Even those of us who loved the slogan “Question Authority!” don’t reach back to early childhood, dragging up the lessons Mom drilled every day, and holding them up to the light. That would be reinventing the wheel, right?

Maybe we should.

In a previous post I wrote about Roots, the book by Alex Haley. I said that his book and the miniseries based on it changed how America thought about slavery:

mammy-and-scarlettBefore Roots, we had Gone With the Wind. You’ve seen the movie, right? Slavery was practiced by genteel, handsome people who had lots of money and beautiful clothes, and all their slaves loved them.

In school int he 1960s and 1970s, we were barely taught about slavery. The Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery (though no one could name any other states’ right, besides the right to own slaves, that ruffled anyone’s feathers). Slavery was regrettable, but hey, slaves were well cared for, mostly. And it was a long time ago. And very far away. That was the narrative.

After Roots was broadcast in 1977, everything changed. Textbooks displayed pictures of men with horribly scarred backs, and drawings of how captives were chained to planks on slave ships. Those awful pictures had existed before, but no one wanted to see or talk about them.
150929_hist_slaverymyths-jpg-crop-promo-xlarge2I’ve learned that around 200 autobiographical books were written by former slaves, maybe more. Half were written before the Civil War, and half after.

(That’s not including the Writers Projects of the 1930s, when the federal government paid unemployed writers to go around and . . . write. In some areas, those writers sought out former slaves and recorded their stories. Those recordings still exist! )

There are first-hand accounts of slavery in America that went forgotten or ignored for decades. Just like the pictures of men with scars from whippings. Before the Civil War, the books got lots of attention — many were bestsellers. But for most of the 20th century they were forgotten. I think we just wanted to forget slavery.

I am serious. It’s ugly. It’s shameful. It is a huge blemish on our history: the systematic imprisonment and enslavement of an entire race for economic gain. We want to be proud of country. We don’t want to believe that our Founding Fathers could be so cruel, or that their moral character  which we praise so highly – could be tainted by self-serving hypocrisy. Criminy, we’re talking George Washington here!

(Washington was a slave owner. True, he ordered his slaves freed in his will (didn’t happen, by the way). Is that supposed to make it better? He wouldn’t free them while he lived, and left it to be done when he died? That’s good? No, that’s appalling.)

A wonderful history teacher told her class once that there were two really important things to remember when trying to understand the past.

First, people in any era were a lot like us. They fell in love, they took care of their children, they cried, they laughed ….

Second, people were not like us, not at all. They lived in a different world. We cannot ever truly understand how they thought.

If you want to try and get your mind around slavery, about how people thought about it, centuries ago, here are some contemporary books that can help:

  • 11Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book roused anti-slavery forces way back when and may have brought on the Civil War. It was a huge bestseller in the 1850s and you probably heard about it in history class – but have you read it?
    It’s actually an extraordinary book, and very readable. Stowe looks at slavery through many lenses. There are scummy sadists and rapists as well as noble-but-weak Southern aristocrats. You’ve no doubt heard of Topsy the slave, a character in the book: to me she is a complex child of passive-aggressive tendencies, and I’m sure there were many little girls just like her, trapped by slavery. Doing one thing, saying another; trying to make sense of life. Stowe pairs Topsy with a Northern woman who must overcome her own hypocrisy: she opposes slavery, but has never had to deal with black people, let alone a black child. In so many ways, this book is a true revelation. Here’s what people thought 150 years ago, here’s what they wanted to believe, here’s how they lied to themselves.
  • 9780393969665_p0_v3_s192x300Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself. Google the guy. Douglass was born a slave, separated and sold away from his mother as a child. He taught himself to read, was whipped and beaten for his attempts to escape, but finally got away through the Underground Railroad and became a charismatic, passionate spokesperson for the Anti-Slavery movement up north. He is fierce and compelling; no wonder even Abraham Lincoln rethought his policies after meeting the man.
  • Celia, A Slave, by Melton A. McLaurin. I’ll be honest with you: this book’s a bit dry and academic. But the bare bones of the true story it tells are horrifying. In 1855, a 19-year-old slave named Celia killed the owner who had been raping her for five years, and she tried to cover up the deed by burning his body. She was put on trial and quickly condemned to death. McLaurin looks at the sparse records of the trial and every scrap of information known about Celia to tell her gruesome story.
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Linda Brent (Harriet Ann Jacobs). This one’s a bit harder to find. It was published in 1861, and between it and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I think we can dispense with the idea that nice people in the 19th century didn’t know that slave women were routinely raped by white men.
  • 12 Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup. The Oscar-winning movie was based on a real book – a book that vied with Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the bestseller lists of the 1850s. It’s a true story about a free black man who was enslaved after being tricked into traveling a bit too far south in the 1830s. Once the War Between the States ended, the book was forgotten for over a century .Fame is as fleeting as freedom.
  • 9780252070204Elizabeth Keckley bought freedom for herself and her son and moved to Washington DC, becoming dressmaker and confidant to Mary Lincoln, the president’s wife, during the Civil War. She was illiterate but sophisticated, so her biography was written with help. In Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, incidents from her past are just as grim as can be, but she finds the humor in them: like the time she was tasked with rocking a white baby when she was just a small child. Elizabeth rocked too hard; the baby fell out of the cradle, and in a panic – knowing she did not dare touch the infant – she got a shovel and tried to scoop the baby up. Sure, she got beaten, but it was still a funny story, right?

OK, I lied. There’s really not too much that’s funny about slavery. But a century or two is way too close for us to ignore it, especially when the after-effects – the racism, anger, and fear – crop on the news so often to remind us that the line describing America as “the land of the free” was once a lie, and the concept remains something to strive for, rather than an accomplishment.



You know the five-second rule (or the three-second rule, or the seven-second rule), right? If something yummy falls on the ground and you pick it up in five (or three or seven) seconds and blow on it, no germs adhere.

The blowing is part of the fun. And the rule was always and ever a joke.

I first heard the rule in the 80s, I think. It made me laugh, as jokes do.

I want to emphasize that: the five-second rule was always a joke. No one ever took it seriously. It was ridiculous, like claiming that cookies (Oreos, specifically) lost their calories during the breakage process. Cookie pieces, therefore, are not fattening.

We laughed over such inanities. Oh, how we laughed.

But now, science has addressed the issue. It was an Issue, you see. Money had to be invested to prove or disprove it.

National Geographic defines the rule: “t’s been the subject of household debates and innumerable science fair projects, with some claiming it’s real and others denouncing it as bunk.”

Household debates? Some claiming it’s real? WTF? IT WAS A JOKE!

A peer-reviewed study from a scientist/professor at Rutgers with a flair for publicity proves that food, especially wet food, picks up dirt and germs immediately, not in five seconds. One of the food items used in the thousands of experiments was watermelon.

Go get a piece of watermelon right now. Or honeydew, or cantaloupe. Drop in on the floor. Drop it anywhere! Pick it up immediately! Unless you have just sanitized the surface, of course you will see all sorts of crap clinging to it. Dog hair, grit, coffee grounds (OK, I’m a slob).

A three-year-old might plop that piece of melon into her mouth, scientific studies be damned. A four-year-old would not.

The five-second rule was always intended to apply to dry food, like M&Ms. Peanut M&Ms. Maybe Oreos. And at the risk of being redundant, it was a joke.

I think this study proves something else entirely. This study proves that what mothers tell their small children becomes dogma. In the 1980s, Moms picked up candies and blueberries and peanuts with a cry of “Five-second rule!” Then they blew on it, handed it to their child, and the child grew up believing that this five-second rule was an immutable law of nature.

Frightening, huh? I may have just rediscovered a major principal of mind control.

So scientists had to use their time and lab equipment to disprove the magical theory that was never supposed to be believed. Let’s hope they didn’t appropriate too much money. . . . oh, maybe that’s why we can’t afford Zika research.

Just kidding. Pathetic, that I have to announce that. What is the world coming to?

I propose a 25-year-rule. After 25 years, whatever we repeat often becomes true, no matter how silly.

I have kept these paragraphs short because I’m holding an unopened bag of Oreos. Every time I finish a paragraph I pitch it across the room and it hits the wall, breaking up the cookies.

Then I jump up and retrieve the bag.

Once I’ve posted this, I will gorge myself on cookie pieces that have no calories, because I learned in the 90s that calories are lost in the breakage process. And until someone produces a peer-reviewed study proving otherwise, I will not gain an ounce.


“He drank the Kool Aid.”

People say that when they’re describing very mundane things. A guy who falls in line with corporate policy. A woman who excuses some aberrant behavior in her candidate. A teenager who goes along to get along. Google the phrase and you’re told it means “demonstrate unquestioning obedience or loyalty to someone or something.”

This bugs me. That’s not what it means. Google gives  no mention of the origin of the phrase, which is very dark . The saying should not be used lightly..

It’s like calling your nasty boss Hitler. Unless your boss plans to take the world to war and exterminate whole classes and races of people, she or he is not Hitler.

In ignorance and while trying to sound smart, we trivialize things that should never be trivialized,

In 1977, a religious cult  moved to Guyana because they felt threatened in the USA. They set up a compound called Jonestown, after their leader. Around a thousand people lived there, including many families.

A year later they all died horribly. Over 900 Americans, who had followed their “savior” to South America, drank cyanide-laced Kool Aid. They died within five minutes.

Almost a third of those killed at Jonestown were children. Parents squirted the Kool Aid into their children’s mouths.

A few followers of Jim Jones, the cult leader, fled into the jungle and survived. They and others said that Jones held rehearsals of mass poisonings, and that most people did not realize they were truly going to die, or that they were killing their children. In other words, it was mass murder.Jonestown-Newsweek1978

Of course there are many more details. Before the deaths, Leo Ryan, a US Representative from California, led a delegation to Guyana to investigate claims of abuse and brainwashing by family members. He came with journalists and aides, and left with several defectors who wanted to escape the cult. Congressman Ryan and all these people were ambushed on the airstrip while trying to leave Guyana. Ryan was killed, as were three journalists and at least one defector, and many others were wounded in the gunfire.

That’s when Jones started passing out the poison.

I remember this magazine cover. It was unimaginable. Below is another picture, showing what authorities found when they got to Jonestown.


This is where the phrase “drinking the Kool Aid” comes from. Don’t say it anymore



I finally read Roots ! I’ve been meaning to for … oh, 37, 38 years. I do get to things, eventually.

Loved the book. Since the TV show – the 1970s, original TV show – paid short shrift to Kunta Kinte’s life in Africa, I was surprised by and entirely sucked into the long chronology of how Kinte grew up, year by year or rain by rain. As he matured into such a fine young man, I kept hoping, ridiculously, that the story would change; that he would not be chained and captured. It was so unfair! Like watching La Boheme and praying that this time, the lovers don’t part. Not in spring, not ever.

Also really interesting to me, since I had my hands on the Official 30th Anniversary Edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winner, was the extra material. A talk by Haley to other Readers Digest authors about how he wrote. I loved it.

haleyHaley had joined the Coast Guard as a young man and spent 20 years on ships. After switching to the life of a freelancer, he still loved to be on ships, and he used to book himself onto the kind of freighters that take only a dozen passengers, along with freight (shipping containers, I suppose), on long journeys. Passengers that would be no trouble, and who kept to themselves. Haley wrote all of Kinte’s life while on one of those ships, with his notes spread out around his bunk. He wrote at night and no one disturbed him. No one cared what the crazy American was doing.

The reason I have intended to read Roots for so long? It changed the way everyone thought: not just about race, but about ancestors and taking pride in the past. The airing of the TV miniseries Roots pretty much created the whole genealogical industry, if it can be called that. Before Roots, most families neither thought of nor cared about “their roots.” Suddenly, and I remember this clearly, everyone wanted to trace their family tree. Magazines and clubs and eventually whole companies (not to mention the Mormon Church) coalesced to service them.

In some instances, Roots forced people to take a hard and honest look at their past. Teachers in all sorts of schools began addressing the truth about slavery and a lot of myths were debunked publicly. Before Roots, we had Gone With the Wind. That was the narrative. After Roots, textbooks carried pictures of men with horribly scarred backs, and drawings of how captives were chained to planks on slave ships. Those pictures had existed but no one wanted to display or talk about them before.

I guess it was the cruelty of slavery that was brought into the light because of Roots. Anyone over 60 remembers being taught in school that the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights,” not slavery, and that owners usually treated their slaves well, if only because those slaves were an economic investment. They ate decently and doctors were called in when they were sick. How nice. That’s all we learned.

No one was taught about the sugar plantations were men and women were simply worked to death in a few short years, or the horrors of the Atlantic crossing that killed so many before they got to North America. No one talked about the very obvious fact that by the time photography came along, most American slaves looked a lot lighter than Africans. No one talked about those horrible scarred backs.

And how about African culture? Haley spent a good chunk of Roots bringing Kunta Kinte to manhood in Juffure, a Moslem town with strict social rules about how people behaved. As you read, you think well of him and his family, even while bristling at the sexism engrained in the society. These were people who strove to instill values, learning, and pride in their children.( And honestly, in 1750, were there any societies anywhere that weren’t sexist?)

Before that book, any idea of civilization in Africa was dominated by National Geographic pictures, the kind that featured naked tribal folks dancing and displaying ropes of beads. Old cartoons (meaning, cartoons produced through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s) taught everyone that Africans were silly savages or headhunters, and no one bothered to change that impression.

By the way, those old cartoons portrayed not just Africans, but American blacks as minstrel show characters and other stereotypes. The most racially offensive cartoons disappeared in 1968 (here’s an article about that), but again, those of us over 60 can remember some pretty vile and derogatory images.

The m9780385037877-usiniseries based on Alex Haley’s Roots got the whole country talking about race. White people suddenly saw black people as having a cultural past and present, and black people saw the reality of slavery in a way that personalized their own history. The evils of slavery and racism were unavoidable; and the public discussion pushed everyone into the arena. You could keep your mouth shut, but you could not avoid hearing about it.

This was huge! Roots dominated conversations at work, school, and home – for months. And when the discussions tapered off, we had changed. We thought about things differently.

How many books have that sort of influence?

I am aware that the historical truth of the novel  has been questioned, most ungraciously. And that there were accusations of plagiarism over part of it, and a large settlement paid. But to me, that does not take away from its impact or Haley’s accomplishment. Roots caught fire in this country. It changed American thought. Dang, what writer could wish for more?

Went to a breakfast meeting with other writers this morning, and here’s some of the Useful and Fascinating Things I Learned:

  1. 99Designs is actually, as good as it sounds. A friend tried it: she needed a cover for a book she’s writing and was willing to pay their asking price ($395, I think). Within two weeks, she had 26 covers submitted by participating artists. She had no trouble narrowing the field down to the few best, because a couple of artists had been so quick to respond and there had been discussions with them about what she wanted. The nice thing about 99Designs is that,since you have already agreed to pay the winning designer the money, you are free to talk back and forth with any or all of them. She not only got a cover that she loves, but a professional relationship for more work in future, because the cover designer was able to recommend a cartoonist to illustrate another book!
  2. Another site that two of our group had tried and enjoyed is DeviantArt.com, where up and coming (i.e., amateur) artists can post work.It may be significant that both these folks were male, and when one warned that some of the work was edgy and x-rated, the other chuckled. In any case, they suggested it as a place to find artists with a style you like, you might be willing, even eager, to do a cover at low rates.
  3. I should never, ever go anywhere without at least bookmarks and business cards. Blew it again!

I will try to be better at posting. My life is like whack-a-mole: just when I manage to fit effective tweeting into it, I find I’ve been neglecting Facebook. I bring that up to snuff and suddenly I haven’t blogged in a long time.

Same with housework. I’m cooking regularly, but suddenly realized I have no clean clothes to wear because I forgot to do laundry. I start reducing the clutter but then the dishes get out of control. IfI cared I’d be upset. But I’d rather be writing.