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Thursday, December 29, 2016

A democrat abroad

A few weeks after the U.S. election, I was with some American voters in a bar in London. There we were, the despised global elite, trying to figure out why our world was in pieces. There was an African-American man who has lived here for seventeen years (married to another man), a young straight couple, and a Mexican-born woman who became a U.S. citizen twenty years ago.

At one point, I wondered aloud the thing I still haven't gotten an answer to: how Donald won white women. A majority of women who look, but clearly do not think, like me voted for a sexual braggart, a misogynist pig--never mind all the piddly details like racism and being completely incompetent. The African-American man speculated that this had to do with their husbands.

"If their husbands have been talking for eight years about how much they hate President Obama," he said, "and how he's the worst thing that ever happened to the country, maybe these women just couldn't stand it. Maybe they voted against Hillary Clinton because they just couldn't stand hearing their husbands bitch about her for the next four years."

I told him this was one of the most disempowering things about women that I have ever heard. I also wondered if he was right. He knows more about husbands than I do.

The Mexican-American woman talked about one of her best friends, a white woman back in the U.S. She couldn't get past how her friend was voting for Don, supposedly because of business reasons. How this woman was so tone-deaf to the anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant things he said and promised to do. "But I'm your friend," the Mexican-American woman said. "You know me."

The young white woman at our table volunteered that she, personally, did not know and had not talked to a single person who had voted or even leaned Don. We agreed that this was part of the problem: that it's possible to live in the United States, and certainly outside, and not know anyone who doesn't think as little of him as we do. That's why so many Democrats were blindsided by his victory. That, and the fact that millions more people did vote for Hillary Clinton, just not in the right cities and states.

But they should not have been blindsided.

Nearly a year ago, Benjamin Studebaker wrote about the Democratic primary in an essay called "Why Bernie vs Hillary Matters More Than People Think." In it, he spelled out the ideology of neoliberalism that has prevailed since the Carter presidency, in contrast to the broadening of economic equality practiced by both Republican and Democratic administrations from the 1930s to the 1970s. He explained that Bernie Sanders, the wild-eyed socialist, actually represented this older tradition, and spoke to the concerns of working people who felt left out by the economic inequality of globalization.

His conclusion was that "if this is the year when the voting public decides that it’s done with neoliberalism, the party that nominates a neoliberal candidate will likely lose. If democrats don’t nominate and support the left egalitarian political movement, if they instead continue to nominate neoliberals who continue to allow incomes to stagnate, they are ensuring that sooner or later (and probably sooner) disaffected poor and working Americans will choose right nationalism as the next dominant economic ideology for potentially decades to come."

And that is exactly what happened. While Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been different in one historic sense--the U.S.A. has never elected and may never elect a female president--we should all be able to agree that Donald is really different. No political experience, no consistent political ideology or party loyalty, and no respect whatever for the norms and bounds of political discourse. Indeed, these were his selling points. The more out of bounds he behaved, the more outrageous things he said and did that had even Republicans recoiling in horror, the more his passionate supporters embraced him.

It would be neither possible nor helpful to know whether the outcome could have been different with a different Democratic candidate. I was told during the primary to go and read history (very condescendingly) and told why a socialist, never mind a secular Jew, could never win in America, and that may very well be true. The African-American voter at my table reminded us that black voters were slow to get on board with Barack Obama at first, and he doubts they'd ever have gone for Bernie Sanders. His own relatives, like many African-Americans, were firmly in Hillary's camp in 2008. They didn't believe an African-American could win the presidency. Many white Americans seem shocked at the intensity of the racist backlash to Obama, but I doubt many black Americans are.

What is helpful is that there is an economic analysis. While many factors conspired in Don's favor to win him the electoral vote, where he won (i.e., where Clinton lost) was by extremely narrow margins in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. You'll remember the pollsters being shocked by Sanders's win in the Michigan primary, but we who watched him debate Clinton there weren't shocked. In fact T. turned to me that night and said, "He's won [in Michigan]." While Clinton said measured, incremental things about fracking and other issues, Sanders simply ruled it out. This is not to her discredit; it's just to say that Sanders knew what was worrying the voters, in those states in particular, for whom economic inequality is a long-term problem.

Dave Eggers quoted Rob Mickey, a political scientist in Michigan: "She said, ‘I’m not crazy’ and ‘I’m not a sexist racist pig’, but for working class whites that’s not enough." This is what is really hard for many people like me to understand: Shouldn't being a crazy, racist, sexist pig be enough to disqualify someone from the presidency?  Before the election and especially since, many of us who dreaded this outcome, or were even shocked by it, have been wondering what is wrong with these voters and how they could let us down. I know of an African-American woman who looks at this election and all she sees is racial resentment and how the Republican exploited it. I know white women who see only that a qualified woman lost to an unqualified man. And while both pictures are incomplete, neither is wrong.

But if I may cite Bill Clinton for a moment: It's the economy, stupid. I don't want to in any way minimize the alarming sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism. In her brilliant challenge to journalists, Christiane Amanpour said, "Since when did anti-Semitism stop being a litmus test in this country?"  But for voters who are struggling, it is always the economy. This seems like a strong and reductive statement so let me be clear what I mean.

First of all, I don't believe for a moment that the next administration will do anything but make the economic inequality in the U.S.A. even worse than it already is. If it got worse under every administration, Democratic or Republican, since Carter, why on earth would a House of Representatives led by Paul Ryan do any better? Just as with "Brexit," those voters who most wanted change are likely to do the worst out of it. And if in order to vote for that change they overlooked or accepted all kinds of vile speech and plans, all kinds of violations of democratic convention, then that is indeed deplorable.

But without cutting them any slack for that, I also think we who are "high information" voters, or who aren't feeling the pain of economic inequality as keenly as others, can sometimes be unaware of their real situation. Sure, if you're a white guy blaming Mexicans or African-Americans, or a white woman willing to throw her sisters under the bus because you can't take four more years of your husband being enraged about Obamacare, then that's deplorable. But voters aren't always "low information" because they choose to watch the wrong channel. Researching all your options politically is something a person working two or three minimum-wage jobs, and raising kids on top of that, just doesn't have time for.

I hasten to add that the Don voters in the states maligned as "Rust Belt" were not the poorest. Poor people have poor voter turnout, and it's no wonder, in a country where polls close at 7:00 PM and Election Day is a workday. The interests of the very poorest Americans are almost never mentioned, let alone acted on.

But if you are struggling--if you haven't gotten a real wage increase, as collectively most Americans have not, since the 1960s--then you are going to feel worse off. And it won't help to tell you that I am better off because I could now marry my same-sex partner, when I never could before. It won't help to tell you that global poverty is down by an astonishing amount in the past 25 years, since much of that is due to the explosion of middle-class jobs in China. After all, those are the jobs that were stolen from you. Why do a billion Chinese people continue to tolerate their own lack of democracy and individual freedom? They have the jobs!

Of course, for African-Americans who were fighting just for the right to vote 50 years ago, America really is better (although not as much better as one might have hoped). For LGBT Americans, who were criminalized into invisibility 50 years ago, it is astonishingly better (although now facing serious setbacks, especially with Mike Pence in the vice presidency). But if you are a straight white person worse off than the generation before you, or not better off, I can see how those facts just don't have an impact on your perceptions. Just dismissing you as not being willing to "share the pie" with more different kinds of people is too simplistic. It is not just Don voters who feel that the world economy is not working for them. Most Americans feel that the system is not working for everybody, or working as well as it should.

Even since the election, I am still reading smug publications that say globalization is unstoppable, that nations are helpless in the face of it and there is nothing governments can do to help their people. This is very dangerous. If there is nothing government can do to help people, then people have no stake in their government. Voter turnout will be even lower, and democracy even more vulnerable to takeover by conscienceless populists who play on the absolute worst in people.

It may very well be that technology and not just trade agreements inevitably eliminated a lot of jobs; but it is also clear, and widely acknowledged, that governments have done a poor job of planning for those outcomes and helping communities that were disproportionately devastated by them. Is the answer Sanders and Warren-style left egalitarianism, or is it Donald and the Tea Party? Because it clearly isn't Clinton centrism anymore. That worked for Bill in the 1990s, and why wouldn't it? The economy was booming then.

It's the economy, stupid. If people are worried about their jobs, their incomes, being able to take care of their kids, then to put it bluntly nothing else matters. They are not going to care about Russia, at least not in 2016. They are not going to care about racism or sexism or homophobia. They are certainly not going to care about immigrants who, in the absence of "high information," they think about lumped all together, from someone illegally taking work away from them to an Islamist terrorist.

And who thought "Islamophobia" as a label was going to work in this election? Most Americans probably don't know anyone Muslim. To them, "Muslims" are the ones who crashed into the World Trade Center. If there isn't anything wrong with Islam, then why was it such a slur to call President Obama a Muslim (something easily disproved which, nevertheless, 40% of all Republicans chose to continue believing)? For the record, I don't think this is a fair characterization at all; I know from my own experience that Christians behave in all kinds of ways and it's unfair to generalize about us only from the worst examples. But as a society, we are nowhere near accepting this, any more than we are "post-racial" or okay with transgender people.

Look at what happened in North Carolina. Pat McCrory, the Republican governor who inexplicably tied himself to an anti-trans "bathroom law," lost, even though the state went heavily for Don. Who was splitting their tickets? Did North Carolinians care so much about trans issues that they voted against McCrory despite voting Republican for president? Or was it that all the boycotting, the loss of the NBA All-Star game, etc. cost the state money? We didn't get any gay rights because straight people all of a sudden started honoring same-sex love. Businesses turned towards us because we are customers.

People vote with their pocketbooks. That is human nature and doesn't make them bad. When they feel someone is listening about the "rigged economy," when they feel represented, then they might care about their neighbors of a different sexual orientation or religion or race than themselves. Or they might not. But hardcore bigots are never going to vote for a liberal anyway. We need to concentrate on the large number of people who will vote for progressive interests, if we make the case to them.

The left is pilloried for "political correctness" and "identity politics," but the bread and butter of the left has always been reducing inequality and bettering the lives of working people. Its strength is coalitions. Less well-off white people and people of color are natural allies, which is why it's always been a right-wing strategy to divide them--to devastating effect.

What we are witnessing now is the culmination of Nixon's Southern Strategy, where the G.O.P. is an actual white supremacist party, yet still doing jack squat for those left-behind communities. Where I come from, Reagan is revered; yet when Reagan became president the top tax rate was 70%. Do we really think it needs further reduction from today's levels? How is that supposed to help the people who left the Democratic party in 1980, and have never returned?

Democrats used to be the party of working people, and campaigned against Republicans as the party of the rich. Somehow by this election, Hillary got pilloried for her connections to Goldman Sachs, but it is Donald who is appointing an actual Goldman Sachs banker to be his secretary of the treasury. In other words, for all his bombast and alarming behavior, he promises, in government, to behave like a Reagan-Bush Republican. Indeed, it is the support of most elected Republicans that got him--and them--the government.

Republicans have not changed that much. They are still the party of the rich, and will make every effort to enhance those people's prospects, at the expense of everyone else. When the disaffected people who thought Don was going to help them economically realize that, once again, they've been had, there needs to be a party of working people who can help everyone hurt by economic inequality.

We had better be ready.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


The Discreet Traveler has been traveling a lot and I thought I would write about that, or what's been brewing in my mind for the past month, ever since the latest disaster of populism rocked my international elitist world. I'm sure I'll have more to say about that in the New Year, but it's the fourth and last Sunday of Advent--the church season of preparing for Christ's birth. And I've been struggling to feel "Christmas-y," let alone handle my Christian faith, in the wake of what has been a terrible year for many people.

So I really didn't think I'd be writing about Christmas. I feel as useless as the rest of the world, wringing my hands about Syria, a genocide happening before our eyes. I feel out of my century: outraged about Russia, of all earthly powers. And if you don't connect those two outrages, as Rachel Spangler wrote, "you're doing it wrong." The clich├ęs about the Christmas story as a Middle Eastern family seeking refuge seem so obvious as to be not worth pointing out again this year. To whom would I be preaching? Would anyone get it this Christmas who didn’t care before?

But it was thinking about all this, in fact, that compelled me to write about Christmas. Because it has been brought home to me over the past few weeks how important my “Christian world view,” as my father puts it, is to me. For all the disgust I feel when I hear religion linked to some atrocity—and Lord, 2016 has seen so many—my faith is not so much a part of my life, as the light in which I see life.

The secularization of the Christmas season, acknowledging other faiths, not saying “Merry Christmas” and so forth is seen by many Americans as an attack on, or at least invalidating, Christianity. In my experience this is more true in places where Christmas and Christian imagery are overtly talked about in public. In England, where I currently live, “Christmas” is everywhere—no “Happy Holidays” to be heard—yet dig too deeply into the Christmas story and you are likely to embarrass people, or they to embarrass you. Sure, all the kids are in the nativity pageant, but really believe? That doesn’t matter. I get the impression that Christ is like a lesser Santa Claus, just another pleasant lie to tell children.

I say this not to criticize one country versus another. I say it because, from the Christian to the person most contemptuous of religion, many people are confused about the link between Christianity and those earthly powers we call nations. Put simply, there is none. There is serving Christ and there’s serving our country, and it’s clear which is supposed to be our priority.

This sounds understandably terrifying to many secularists, who fear theocracy. A Christian Taliban, superseding national values with the cross of Christ, would be as bad as an Islamic state imposing sharia.

But it wouldn’t be Christian. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “The Church that went along with Hitler was not the church. The Church was in the concentration camps.”[1] Christianity is unique among world religions in claiming that God came down to earth to live a human life. That is the Christmas story that makes people squirm when you press them about it. If our King is God, born in a stable, then that is the leader we are supposed to follow, whether or not it conflicts with our nation’s call. We hope it doesn’t, but when Jesus calls, Christians are supposed to follow him—even if his way leads to the cross.

Whether you are right or left of center politically, that can be uncomfortable. It’s all very well when the leadership in power seems to align with your values, but when you feel it threatens them instead, in what does patriotism lie? The Bible is clear that the kingdoms of the world are not ultimately very important, given that Christ is King. If you are wondering if there are any exceptions, just listen to this from Handel’s Messiah: “I will shake all nations[2]

Boy, is this awkward. We love our countries. Even to many Christians, the idea of serving God instead somehow seems wrong, and of course the whole thing sounds ridiculous if you don’t believe. But our faith is supposed to be folly to the world[3]. Because this is not our world.

Now, if you’ve ever read anything else I’ve written, you know I don’t think we should turn our brains off, or defy science. Faith is “the evidence of things unseen”[4]; it doesn’t replace all other evidence. What I am getting at is the awkwardness of being a Christian in a world that never has been Christian. How should we behave towards one another on earth, when our conviction is that we’re made for eternity?

The Gospel reports Jesus as saying that “the kingdom of God is within you.”[5] We aren’t just in the waiting room for eternal life. “If you take seriously the glorious promise that God created us all to live forever, then what we do here and now matters far more than if this life were all….It may be of ultimate import whether or not we give a thirsty child a cup of cool water, whether or not we feed the hungry stranger who comes to our door.”[6]

So the next time you hear about evangelical Christians, Christian identity, or just Christmas, try imagining what it would look like if Christians put into practice the way Jesus actually taught and behaved on earth. Think about it the next time you sing, or hear, this carol by Charles Wesley about why Christ came:

Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
‘Glory to the newborn King!’”

[1] L'Engle, The Irrational Season, p. 94. One of my favorite books of all time
[2] Haggai 2
[3] See I Corinthians
[4] Hebrews 11:1
[5] Luke 17:21
[6] L'Engle, op. cit.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The end of history

No, it's not. History will judge that a remarkable woman ran a historic campaign for the presidency of the U.S.A., and lost for the most ridiculous of reasons. An appalling lack of knowledge of our history is surely part of the explanation, if there is one. But it’s also revealed in the statement we hear so often, that “we have never been more divided.”
Really? Sticking strictly to the memory of living people, are Americans really more divided than during the Vietnam war? Or the more recent AIDS crisis, when so many members of our community lost their families along with their lives? Remember how many people in those days wanted us dead. Over and over this year we’ve expressed shock that so many Americans hate us, but the real shock is that we ever forgot.
I’ve been reminded by Cindy Rizzo, Brandi Carlile, and others about the Vietnam era and the AIDS era, and how we must respond as we did then. By being the protesters, the opposition, and also by taking care of each other. There is truth in this platitude of conservatives: we can’t leave it up to the government to do the work for us. Now as then, we are the ones who value our lives, and we will fight for them.
But now I’m going to say something you may not be feeling, and that is that I wish our next government’s officials well. Yes, even him. It is not in the interest of America, where I still have family and friends, or the world for the next administration to be a catastrophe. Nothing in the president-elect’s words or actions have yet demonstrated to me that he won’t be terrible; that’s why we worked so hard to prevent this. But now that it’s happened, I hope that he won’t be terrible. If instead I were to wish disaster on the U.S. or the world, I’d be no better than those members of Congress who’ve hamstrung the Supreme Court and wished nothing but failure to the current president. That’s not what anyone who loves his country should do.
The Good Samaritan, Rembrandt van Rijn

If the next president doesn’t already know it (and I suspect he does), he will soon learn that just saying things doesn’t make them happen in real life. Locking up someone who’s not been convicted of any crime, building a wall, or deporting millions of people can’t simply be done unopposed, even by the president of the United States. Anyone who was foolish enough to take him at his most preposterous word will soon be disappointed too.
And it’s not just Trump voters who think something is broken in “the system.” For example, I’m glad that Catherine Cortez Masto will be the next Senator from Nevada, but obscene amounts of money poured into that race because Nate Silver said it would determine whether Democrats or Republicans controlled the Senate. Neither Cortez Masto nor her opponent, Joe Heck, was a monster, and most of those millions of dollars didn’t even come from their state. Is that really the way our democracy should work?
Another U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders, said this: “People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids - all while the very rich become much richer. To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”
Finally, we have to think of what it means to be loyal to our country, and what it means to serve our God or our Higher Power. Many people in this election chose their country over their faith, choosing to view Christianity as a particular culture on earth rather than the kingdom of heaven. We who are citizens of the world, not just of one earthly nation, need to express the highest ideals of our faith, in opposition just as we would if we were privileged to serve in government.
At the end of our lives neither God nor our conscience will demand how many officials we helped to elect. We will have to answer for how we took care of the children, the poor, the planet. And that’s something we can work on every day.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

I stopped by the bar...

J.D. Vance is a thoughtful conservative who grew up in southern Ohio, joined the U.S. Marines, and is now a highly educated academic. He is the author of Hillbilly Elegy and has spent a lot of time thinking about the gulf that divides Americans between where he grew up and the circles he moves in now. In The New York Times this week, he wrote:

The headline from last night’s debate nearly writes itself: A major party presidential candidate refused to accept the legitimacy of the 2016 election….Yet I found myself wondering, as debate co-watchers gasped over Mr. Trump’s statements, whether any of the Trump supporters I know back home will actually care.
The answer is probably no. At the core of his appeal is a rejection of mainstream political norms, and this is just another example of Mr. Trump slaughtering a proverbial sacred cow.
The question now is …whether the segment of our country that gasps when he delegitimizes our democratic institutions can ever be reconciled to those who cheer the same.

I keep coming back to something I wrote earlier: that for all the racial animus around Barack Obama, what perhaps puts people off more is the anti-intellectual strain in U.S. politics. There is a strong tradition of peasants with pitchforks. 
American Gothic by Grant Wood (Art Institute of Chicago)

The country was born in violent revolution, and split along state lines in the Civil War.

When President Obama, an Ivy League-educated law professor, lectures the American people, many feel talked down to. They don’t just hear an African-American man, although that may irritate them even more: they hear possibly the most infuriating thing in the world, someone making them feel stupid. The fury at a cosmopolitan, highly educated elite, and the split along levels of education, is at least as much about this as it is about race or economics.

It may be that this anti-intellectual uprising is worse than it has been because of the appalling levels of literacy and reading—not just higher education. In the United States today
·         14% of adults can’t read.
·         Only 13% of adults can read at a proficient level.
·         28% of adults didn’t read a book in the last year.
·         50% of adults can’t read a book written at an 8th grade level.

But it’s not a new divide. It’s as old as the United States, which was founded by an intellectual elite. These men had high ideals for the ability of every man [sic] to read, and thus educate himself, to be a good citizen and participate in democracy. John Adams, our second president, said:

“The very Ground of our Liberties, is the freedom of Elections. Every Man has in Politicks as well as Religion, a Right to think and speak and Act for himself. No man either King or Subject, Clergyman or Layman has any Right to dictate to me the Person I shall choose for my Legislator and Ruler. I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any Man judge, unless his Mind has been opened and enlarged by Reading."

Now, we all know that the democracy founded by these male intellectuals had some huge gaps. Some of the founders were slave owners; none of them recognized the equality of the Native people of North America; and Abigail Adams had to remind her husband about the women. But that’s why democracy is a process. It didn’t happen in one revolution or one presidency. It’s ongoing, and it requires all of our participation.

Which brings me to the bar. I watched the final presidential debate of the 2016 election in a pub in London. Afterwards, I got talking to a group of young professionals who live here—no doubt we are the international educated elite! But none of us started life that way. There were two Canadian women, one black and one white; an Asian-American man; and another U.S. citizen who was born in Pakistan. It was this last man to whom I spoke the most. He reminded me that after September 11, 2001, all men from certain countries, including him, were required to register with the U.S. government. Many were deported. (You didn’t know that, did you?)

“It wasn’t a Muslim ban,” he said, “because it was based on which country we were born in. But of course almost everyone from Pakistan is Muslim. And it would have been very dangerous for me to be deported back to Pakistan. I was, and am, very openly gay.”

Homosexuality is illegal in Pakistan, as it used to be in the States. The reason most Americans now don’t have a problem with equal rights for gays is that more of us are out now, so most Americans know an openly gay person, and are fine with that.

But most Americans probably don’t know a Muslim. My friend in the pub was the first Democrat one of his neighbors in the U.S. had ever met, never mind Muslim. I believe that most Americans are good-hearted and don’t mean harm to their fellow citizens, but it’s very difficult to be reconciled when we don’t even talk to each other. When we have no idea of each other’s life experience.

Democracy, whether in the U.S., Canada or elsewhere, is work. As the Pakistani-American’s registration experience shows, it can suffer setbacks at any time. If we want it to work, we have to participate.

To quote a great country songwriter, Willie Nelson: “The world’s getting smaller and everyone in it belongs.”

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The discreet hiker: Grand Canyon 1997, North Wales 2002

Some travels are business trips or visits to family and friends. Some travels are to see new places and spend time abroad. The best are combinations of these.

But a special kind of travel, which may be included in the former, is the adventure. The adventure is an activity, generally outdoors and physically demanding. For me this is usually some form of hiking. Of course, I can and do hike in places close  to where I currently live, and that can be an adventure. The two most adventurous hikes of my life, though, were in locations unfamiliar to me. They were exhilarating, and I'm proud that I managed them. Particularly because, looking back, I could have prepared so much better if I'd just known a little bit more.

It seems odd now that I'm writing this blog, but in 1997 when I hiked the Grand Canyon, and even 2002 when I attempted all the over-3,000-feet mountains in Wales, I wasn't getting much information from the internet. The extent of my preparation for hiking from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back, on a single hot day in July, was to take a lot of water, sunscreen, a hat, and the walking boots that I wore more or less every day. We saw signs at Grand Canyon National Park warning us not to attempt rim-to-river-and-back in one day, and chose to disregard them.

We were fine because we took the attempt seriously, stuck together, and carried a lot of water. But not in the efficient way we would today. I'd never heard of a "hydration system" (Camelbak is one brand name), where you carry a load of water in your backpack and can drink from a tube as you hike along. These are great, but we just had water bottles. In fact, my brother was carrying a gallon jug in his hand!

Now, I think about the amount of effort involved in carrying water this way (no free hand for hiking poles--we didn't have those either). We probably expended a lot of energy that we could have used on our ascent back out of the Canyon, when we were tired. Nonetheless, we planned in the most important ways. We had water and took time to rest in the shade. One group of guys we passed were sitting in the hot sun, drinking Pepsi, which is more dehydrating than the opposite.

In the afternoon, when we'd already been down to the river and partway back up to Indian Gardens, we took a rest spell in the hottest part of the day. For about four hours we stayed in picnic shelters and lay down, while the thermometer stuck at 125 degrees Fahrenheit--the highest it would display (it might have been hotter). It was not an advisable time of the year to hike in the Canyon, which gets so much hotter inside than it does on the rim. But--that was the month we were there. We wanted to do it, and we did manage. Took plenty of snacks--again, not clever, hiker-marketed snacks like energy bars or gels. My mom had provided us with, among other things, a box of crackers and Cheez Whiz.

The lesson from this is that although we looked like amateurs and we were, being sensible got us to the river and back to the rim without injury. The signs warn people against attempting to do what we did because many people aren't sensible. They walk into the Grand Canyon, one of the truly spectacular features of Earth, on a whim and are never heard from again. They have nothing to protect their skin, eyes, or head; they don't carry enough water; they have only an apple or a candy bar. We may have had crackers and Cheez Whiz, but we ate them, and they got us through. When you need energy for hiking, most foods taste remarkably good!

My walking boots* may have gotten me out of the Grand Canyon, but when I got to North Wales our guide informed me that these were not hiking boots and would not be sufficient. To this day I'm not sure that was the right decision. One thing everyone should know is that there are no shortcuts on footwear. Whatever your boots, you had better be comfortable in them and that means having worn them before--"broken them in" is the classic expression about leather boots.

I will admit, though, that I seriously underestimated Wales. I'd hiked a mountain close to home that was 6,000 feet and you can just walk up it no problem, so how hard could 3,000 feet be? What I didn't count on was "scrambling," which is this British expression for using hand- and foot-holds to go up boulders. It may not be climbing--climbing technically requires ropes, crampons, equipment like that--but it was not like any hiking I'd ever undertaken, either. There was part of one mountain that probably only lasted a short time, but which I will remember for the rest of my life. I woke up that night clutching at handholds. Our guide in some cases had to show me them individually, so I would literally be able to take the next step.
Photographs by P. J. Radley
Why didn't I know about this? Would I have undertaken this multiday hike if I'd known more about the geography of these "little" mountains and what ascending them would involve? Maybe not, and that would have been a shame. All I knew was we needed to be reasonably fit, which I was. And I had my trusty boots, various incarnations of which I'd been wearing for years. I had hiked the Grand Canyon in them. Why should Wales have demanded any different?

In any case, the guide lent me a pair of boots that he thought would be better for ascending the mountains of Wales. Maybe he was right, but I'd never worn these boots before I spent a day hiking in them, and boy, did I suffer. My feet were so blistered by the end of the first day that I could not take a step in the boots the next morning. He had to lend me yet another pair--what looked a lot like running shoes but were actually low-cut hikers, with good soles.

They were comfortable enough that I could hike in them, but unlike my original pair, they had no Gore-Tex lining. (I know that there are other brands of waterproofing; I can only say that no boots I've worn with Gore-Tex waterproofing have ever let me down, even stepping in puddles or walking in driving rain.) It was June, a month I thought was summer in the northern hemisphere, but once again Wales had other ideas. The heavens opened and cold rain poured down.

At one point--the hand- and foothold scrambling period mentioned earlier--I felt like I was climbing straight up, and in a flowing streambed to boot. I did have gloves on; someone must have told us in advance to pack these, but they had no water resistance whatsoever and were soaked. So were my borrowed shoes and single pair of socks. All of this could have been avoided.

I managed twelve of the fifteen mountains we had aimed to climb in three days. At the end of the second day, my partner was injured, and we could not manage the third day. It was on the descent where she injured herself that I learned descent can be harder than ascent. Sure, going up is harder physical work. This was especially true at the Grand Canyon, where you hike down into the inner canyon first, then back up along switchback after switchback, when you're already tired.

But descent is harder on your knees, and you notice this more when your legs are tired (from hiking or age). Someone had hiking poles and lent my partner one, to aid her descent. Once again, why had I never heard of these poles? They are fantastic, and can be collapsed for packing or adjusted to the appropriate length. Not only could they have helped with balance and taking pressure off my knees as I descended; if I'd been able to use them earlier in the hike, my legs would not have gotten so tired and jellylike. They help spread the energy better, once you're used to using them.

The other thing I learned on the descent was another lovely word, almost as terrifying to me as scrambling. That word is scree. Scree is kind of like fine gravel, and it is what is at the tops of mountains once you get past boulders and bigger rocks. I managed to get down through the scree without falling, though more slowly than I'm sure my hiking companions would have liked. But I would have felt quicker and more confident with trekking poles.

As I mentioned, I had at least heard of packing layers in my backpack, and taking them off/putting them back on to maintain body temperature. It would not have been a successful or even safe hike without those. But as with the Grand Canyon in 1997, we didn't know anything about the best materials, such as not wearing cotton (it gets wet with sweat, which is not good for keeping the body warm, especially with cold wind and rain like we had in Wales). On top of my regular--not wicking--shirt, I had a fleece vest (good), a hooded sweatshirt (would substitute it with another fleece if I were packing today), an Aran sweater (heavy wool--more about that in a second), and an outer windbreaker jacket that I'd gotten for free from my parents' health insurance (don't ask). The windbreaker had a hood and could easily be taken off and tied around my waist if I didn't want to stop and put it in my daypack.

At one point, I was wearing all of these, plus my single layer of pants (again nothing special--no fleece lining or waterproof outside) and a beret which was the hat I'd thought to bring. I had the hood tied over the top of my beret, my wet gloves, and five layers on my upper body, including the sleeveless fleece vest. I was cold, especially when still, but I was not hypothermic or growing numb. Remember that this was supposedly a summer month.

I mentioned the Aran sweater. Along with the fleece, it was the one item of clothing that was exactly what I should have been wearing up there (the outer jacket was essential, but a truly waterproof one, with Gore-Tex or similar lining, would have been better protection). Sure, it was too bulky--most hikers who wear wool nowadays choose merino wool garments. These are made from a particular breed of sheep's very fine wool, which does not get stinky and stays warm even when wet. You can get merino wool hiking socks too, which I very much recommend for repeated wearings.

But as old-fashioned as it was, my wool sweater was very warm and did as good a job as an expensive down jacket would have, and better than a fleece. Now I know why all the sheep wandering around on the mountains of Wales seemed to be fine! I inherited that sweater, which was originally knitted in Ireland, and it kept me warm for decades. In fact, the lightest packing I ever did was an overnight trip to visit the inauguration of President Obama in 2009, and that Aran sweater was in a plastic bag. (Packing so light, and buying a last-minute overnight plane ticket, probably explain why I was detained in secondary on my way to the United States, though there is still no excuse for it because I am a U.S. citizen with a right to be there.) You can see me wearing it here.

Of the twelve mountains, the one I will always remember is named Tryfan (pronounced tre-VAN in Welsh). I am not sure if these pictures do justice to how imposing its rocky heights were, or how hard it was to get up them. Because of the extreme heat in the Grand Canyon I had thought that was the most physically demanding experience of my life, but I think the second day in Wales, ascending Tryfan in the pouring rain, might have taken its place.

What did I learn from these adventures? Respect the environment (3,000 feet didn't sound like a tall mountain to me at the time, but I didn't know Wales). Take layers. Wear your own boots!

And--food will taste awfully good out there. We were signed up for vegetarian meals and on Tryfan day, the packed lunch included an olive-paste sandwich. I had never eaten olive paste before and probably never will again, plus I don't like the British habit of always buttering the bread in sandwiches. But do you know how much I appreciated a butter and olive paste sandwich when I had made it up Tryfan?
These two big rocks at the top of Tryfan are called Adam and Eve. Some people jump from one to the other. But at this point, I had learned my limits.

Know yours, and have a great time!

*Summary of things I got right/things I should have packed:

  • Ecco boots. This is probably the only brand of anything I will ever endorse, and it's an individual thing. I have narrow feet and a lot of footwear does not fit me right in the relatively small size I need. Ecco makes a lot of fashion types of shoes, but a few of their models are great for walking and the boots have ankle support. I have always found them comfortable (i.e., blister free) the moment I put them on, and I've never gotten my feet wet in Gore-Tex, unless I plunged into deep water past the ankle!
  • Blister plasters. These are like Band-Aids that you slap on a blister and leave it on till the blister goes away. If you are unfortunate enough to get blisters (don't borrow boots like I did!), these could make the difference to you walking the next day.
  • Water. Water water everywhere. In Wales I felt there was nothing but water ("ddim yn door" is what it sounds like in Welsh); in the Grand Canyon you'll die without it. If you don't have one of those hydration systems, Nalgene-type wide mouth bottles that can carabiner on to your backpack are the way to go.
  • Layers. Base layer should be a wicking material (not cotton) so your skin doesn't get wet. Mid layers for warmth (fleece, down jacket in winter weather, or wool if you have a more compact sweater than mine!) The outer layer should be waterproof (not resistant), windproof, and have a hood that can tie on.
  • Hat. Collapsible, so you can stuff it in your backpack with everything else. In sunny weather, like the Grand Canyon, this is to keep off the sun, but the same hat can also keep off rain if it's a good one. In cold weather you need something fleecey or woolly to cover your ears. I know, I refused to wear one too. Either the hat or outer hood should tie on to keep from blowing off in the wind.
  • Except in the hottest weather, always have gloves. Even in mildly cool or windy weather, you will appreciate having thin or liner gloves, especially if you're holding on to hiking poles for hours. Because you'll have them, won't you?
  • Remember that any outer layer that isn't waterproof is basically not protecting you at all. This also means a pair of rain pants you can stuff into your backpack and snap on quickly if needed. Layers layers layers!
  • Food. Just as you want to drink water continually, you want to eat regularly. The adage about eating when you are hungry does not work while on a demanding hike. Take lots of snacks that are easy to eat "on the go" and contain energy. Keep them in your pockets so you can get at them easily. 
  • Zipping pockets are the best!
  • Oh, and a bandanna is the single most versatile item you will ever pack. You can dip it in the Colorado River to cool off, wrap it around your neck against dust or sun, tie it on your head in a pinch, even use it as a sleep mask. I have two: one a souvenir from the Basque Country, and one so old it has "MADE IN U.S.A." on it. Surely my oldest and most useful piece of cloth.
  • I'll say this again, but just because you're in a foreign country there is no reason to carry your passport around with you. All I got for having my passport in my backpack in Wales was water damage to a brand new passport. For the next ten years, the corner peeled, it wasn't machine readable, and every immigration officer had to fiddle with it. Maybe that was the reason I got stuck in secondary at the U.S. border!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Tanzania. May 2001

All these years of Discreet Traveling, yet I've never posted about this trip. I think because it's too big to write about in blog form. A town in northern Tanzania gave its name to my first novel, Arusha, and crucial scenes were set there. Arusha is about a woman whose life changes, and while those changes don't begin in East Africa, she's definitely a different person once she returns from there.

There are all the other places I've traveled or hope to travel in my life, and then there's Tanzania. It was the most amazing trip I've ever experienced or ever expect to have.

If we're fortunate, each of us has that one place that was perfectly amazing. If you went on a similar trip to mine, it might not be your #1; it is not objective. When I say that nowhere I've been could even measure on the same scale as Tanzania, that is not to take anything away from, say, the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. Who knows, if I had gone to the Great Barrier Reef when I was 28 and had never visited the southern hemisphere before, that might be the trip by which my mind was most comprehensively blown.

But I didn't and that is why, when I write about Tanzania, I'm not thinking in terms of anecdotes or how hilarious it was when we had to go in and chase off that gigantic spider in my sister's room. I am thinking of impressions, of how different I felt when I went there, and when I returned to Canada.

It's become an important disclaimer in travel writing now "not to be Eat, Pray, Love." Somewhat unfairly to a book that sold very well (and which I remember enjoying at the time), this disclaimer has to do with how wrong it is to be a privileged Westerner projecting one's own needs or inadequacies onto people who live in the developing world. That type of writing, and indeed traveling, takes away from the authentic lives of the people who live in developing countries, and makes travel a selfish experience that is all about us.

Well...yes. We are privileged if we can freely travel to other countries, and it's insensitive if we don't acknowledge that people there have lives of their own, lives we can never fully understand. Some Western tourists clearly don't understand or appreciate this privilege. I'm not just talking about rich Americans who think the thoughtless slaughter of wildlife is a fun way to visit Africa (I'm looking at you, Trump Jr.), but the Canadian whose comments I read on a travel site the other day. She didn't understand why Tanzanians don't pay nearly the same prices as foreign visitors do at Tanzania's national parks, and felt that she had been ripped off. That doesn't show much awareness of the relative wealth of Tanzanians and people who can afford to travel there. Besides, if there were no money in conserving nature, could we really blame local people for farming on that land instead, or otherwise making use of it? We might not be "rich" in our countries back home, but we certainly are from the perspective of most people we meet in the developing world.

As we are learning, being aware of privilege can go a long way. There may not be much I can personally do about the structural inequality in the world, but if I open my eyes and truly try to learn when I'm abroad, I may appreciate its existence in a way that's hard to do sitting at home. Whether I go on to try and do something positive about it is up to me, of course.

But I also find traveling one of the great joys of life and if there is beauty and magnificence in the world, and people working hard to preserve it, then that is a good thing. I want to be there and appreciate it. Having done so, I hope it has affected me personally--that I've learned something and won't see the world in quite the same way as I did before. I don't think it's very responsible not to learn.

Ever since I left Tanzania, I have wanted to go back. I hope when I do that I have more knowledge of and appreciation for Tanzanians, their varied ways of life, and how hard the people work who make visitors' experiences possible. But I do not hope ever to see anything as amazing as a young lion trotting along beside our safari vehicle.

Photographs by P. J. Radley
And I know I won't have what turned out to be one of the blessed advantages on that trip fifteen years ago: a simple film camera. The 35-mm camera with which (a better photographer than I) took most of our pictures did not even have a zoom lens. That means that when I look at the pictures now, I know exactly how far away that lion was--even the hunting female with redeye, just that close.

Wherever you go in this world, I hope you have incredible, eye-opening encounters with nature and with people. And I hope you appreciate them deeply. It is a blessing.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Blazing the track

I’ve hesitated to write on this subject, because the ignorance and bitter feelings being expressed take away from the glory of athletic competition. But I feel I have to express my pride in Caster Semenya, who carried South Africa’s flag at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics, and who won the women’s 800m race on Saturday night.

For those who don’t know the background, Caster Semenya’s career has been dogged by years of humiliation at the hands of the International Association of Athletics Federations. Not because she’s a doper, but because she isn’t. Semenya is believed to have, naturally, hyperandrogenism, which includes a higher testosterone level than most women. As a result, she has been excluded from competitions and forced to take testosterone-lowering medication to inhibit her performance—even though no less than the American Medical Association has concluded that no one factor can make the difference for an elite athlete.

Sex and gender are complicated and not as binary as we were brought up to believe. The truth is, though, that Caster Semenya is not the only woman like this, even at these Games. In fact the appeal to the IAAF’s ruling that allowed them, once again, to compete was not brought by Semenya, but by an Indian runner named Dutee Chand. Caster Semenya has been humiliated publicly for years to a degree that no other athlete has, for two reasons: 1. She is a woman with a female partner who doesn’t try to look or sound as feminine as other people think she should, and 2. She wins.

These points are important. Lots of women have known a taste of what Semenya has gone through, though not on a spectacular international stage. Because our voices were deeper, or our presentation less feminine, than other women expected, we have been subjected to a thousand everyday gender shamings. We have been stopped at bathroom doors, whether or not we were transgender. If we are athletes, we have been told “Be a man, you try hard enough” or ridiculed in general for our physical efforts and trying to compete. If we actually are lesbian, we have of course been bashed for that too.

There were a record number of openly queer athletes at these Olympic Games, many of them gay or bisexual women, and there were plenty of slurs and shouting against them. But sexism and homophobia are not new in women’s sports. It was not until the 1980s that women were even allowed to run long distances at the Olympics, and we’ve all read about the first woman to run the Boston Marathon and attempts to manhandle her off the course.

Many people have heard about Semenya and may be sympathetic to what I’ve written above, but still have this nagging sense that there is something unfair about it. Of course an athlete is the product of her training and coaching as well as the body she was born with, but what about the other athletes? Isn’t it unfair to include a woman with more testosterone in her body than other women in the race, even though she comes by that level naturally?

Competition is unfair. It’s unfair that no matter how hard I trained, I could never beat Caster Semenya or any other Olympian on the track. I could train hard and receive good coaching, but I was not born with the body, the athletic gifts, that every single one of those competitors also has. Some have rare features, such as unusually long arms. In this case, a swimmer like Michael Phelps is generally admired for his magnificence, not persecuted as a freak.

A lot of things go into making an Olympic champion. Some an individual is born with and others involve hard work. No one feature can predict a gold medal—if it could, wouldn’t Dutee Chand have won her event? Yet she didn’t even make the final, crashing out of her heat. Clearly, there’s more than testosterone at work here.

A lot more. Think of the men’s 10,000m race, which only one person from the western hemisphere has ever won (Billy Mills, a Native American Indian, in 1964). Is this event less exciting because we fully expect someone from the eastern hemisphere to win it? Should we exclude such men from the race, or make them run separately, or take hormones to bring their speeds down?

How about Usain Bolt’s astonishing triple wins at the 100m, 200m and relay distances? They were astonishing, but not because we tuned in expecting someone else to win. We were astounded not by suspense over the outcome, but by Bolt’s magnificent gifts. He was the greatest on the track.

Would we rather Bolt take performance-diminishing drugs, so others had a chance to catch him? How about a special race for supermen only, leaving ordinary mortals to contest the sprints? Or let’s give Bolt’s gold medal in the 100m to the silver medalist, Justin Gatlin, who has been a known drug cheat.

It’s ridiculous. Bolt is the best thing to happen to track and field in years, because he runs faster than anybody else, in the body God gave him.

The woman who won the gold medal to Caster Semenya’s silver in the 2012 Olympics has since been disqualified for doping. Yet some in international athletics would like to force women like Semenya to reverse-dope (some have even undergone mutilation, an obscenity). Let’s leave aside human rights and fairness for a second, and ask this: Would it really be better for the sport if some women were forced to run more slowly than they can, in order to give other women a chance? Could anything be more demeaning to the competition? Don’t people watch the Games to see the very best on earth?

Years ago Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story entitled “Harrison Bergeron.” In the world of that story, only people with severe speech impediments were permitted to speak on television. People who were deemed good-looking were required to wear clown noses, and especially fit people forced to weight their bodies down with shackles. All this made people “equal” so that no one would feel inadequate compared with an unusually gifted person. Vonnegut’s satire is obvious. But if world-class competition is reduced to such handicapping, don’t expect anybody to watch with pride.

As for Caster Semenya, she has proven to have more of that than most of the rest of us, too—pride and grace. “Be happy in front of your haters,” she posted last week; “it kills them.”

"Semenya didn't just win the gold medal in the women 800 metres final," writes Andrew Webster. "She won for every person who has ever been told they are different, they're not normal, that they should be ashamed of who they are."

Monday, August 1, 2016

Writing the future

A few years ago, I published a novel called The Trees in the Field, whose hero is a Republican woman in Congress. It begins: "Every United States senator looks in the mirror and sees a future president. Raybelle McKeehan had been seeing that future president since she was ten years old."
I chose that age deliberately, because when I was ten, I thought I could be president of the United States. 

Last week for the first time, a major U.S. political party nominated a woman for president. But this isn't about her. It's about some of the women who weren't talked about at the Democratic National Convention, and about how what is imagined becomes what is real.

In 1981-82, I had a couple of favorite books. They weren't my books; they belonged to my classroom in Carter County, Tennessee. One was the Arrow Book of Presidents. It had two or three pages about each of, at that time, thirty-nine men who had served as President of the U.S. I already liked history, and found that I was also interested in politics. In particular, I was interested in the presidency, a unique role that was at once "leader of the free world" and head of state of my country.

I learned the full names of all the presidents by heart. It's my party trick. At this year's Democratic convention, when the Jumbotron showed the faces of forty-three white men and one African-American man who have served as president, I was mouthing each name.

Then the Jumbotron showed a glass ceiling breaking. Here's another thing I remember about the Arrow Book. The back page listed the constitutional requirements to be president: thirty-five years old, a resident of the United States, a U.S. citizen from birth. "A man or woman," the book said, who met these three requirements could become president.

There it was. The Constitution didn't say it had to be a man. I could see in the Arrow Book that every president so far had been a man, but that didn't mean it had to be so forever. 

In the 1970s, books had begun to be published depicting a rainbow, Sesame Street kind of world, and these books had made it even to my school. They would illustrate "police officer," for example, with a picture of a black woman. To the adults around me--male and female--this was propaganda. "Why does it always have to be a black woman?" I would hear, even though--or perhaps because--none of us had ever seen a black woman fulfill this role in real life.

The presidency did not seem remarkable to me in this way. I had never seen anyone other than a white man preach, either, or serve at the communion table in church. I had never seen a female principal, although all of my teachers were women. I had never seen a female doctor, or a female police officer, let alone a black one. Yet in black and white--in books--it was possible.

My other favorite book of the time was They Led the Way. It also contained a few pages each about a number of people--in this case, a dozen or so American women whose names are still not well known. Anne Hutchinson, one of those banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because their religious convictions clashed with the Puritans'. Carrie Chapman Catt, whose mother explained that only Carrie’s father could vote, and who decided to do something about that. And a woman called Victoria Woodhull, who in 1872 ran for president of the United States.
When I shared these stories, I heard remarks about these women too. Anne Hutchinson didn't just discuss her minister's sermons or say American Indians should not be slaves. As for Victoria Woodhull, she wasn't a serious candidate; she could never have really become president. The adults in my life didn't say that Hutchinson challenged the subordination of women, or that Woodhull advocated "free love," but there was obviously something wrong with each of them.

Neither book mentioned that one hundred years after Victoria Woodhull, Shirley Chisholm ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. She was the first black person to run for a major party's nomination for president, although not the first woman (Margaret Chase Smith ran as a Republican in 1964). Of course, she didn't get it. If black women in picture books were controversial in the 1970s, try imagining one as president!
She was succeeded as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus by a representative named Geraldine Ferraro. Chisholm herself betrayed her excessive optimism by predicting "We will have a woman president before the end of the century." It hasn't happened yet. But today her party, at least, could not function without black women, let alone win elections. When the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee resigned at the last moment, Donna Brazile stepped in as interim chairman. This year's convention was chaired by Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, and the CEO of the convention, as in 2008, was Washington, D.C.'s Reverend Leah Daughtry. 

If you want to know why a woman is this year's Democratic nominee, rather than the man who got almost as many primary votes as the Republican candidate, look at black women. Her performance with them was equal to Bernie Sanders's with voters under the age of twenty-five, and African-American women are a much larger percentage of the Democratic electorate.

After I was ten I began to learn more about sexism, and how women were not deemed competent to do a man's job. I saw what happened to the man who ran with a female vice presidential candidate in the 1984 election. Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro won only one state plus D.C., and it sounded to me as if this was all you could expect with such a fringe idea as nominating a woman. No one exactly said it, but like Victoria Woodhull, she couldn't be taken seriously.

By the time I was in high school, I realized that a female prime minister had been leading Britain for years. More and more countries around the world were electing female leaders, but clearly this hadn't made misogyny disappear. My working life brought an emphatic end to the illusion that women, even now, were treated equally. Before I ever heard of Barack Obama, I remember declaring that a black man was more likely to become president than a woman (though both seemed unlikely), and that if a woman ever was elected, I would eat my hat.

I am telling this story to illustrate that what is incredible to a forty-three-year-old woman was easily imagined at ten. We do not begin our lives feeling that some people have more worth than others. Snide remarks teach us that feeling, and then experience does the rest.

I was in the womb when George McGovern, instead of Shirley Chisholm, ran for president. McGovern's coalition of most people of color (a higher proportion of their votes than Obama got in 2012), together with radicals like gay activists, and the occasional college-educated white voter like my parents, also lost forty-nine states. But America has changed so much that this year, that could be a winning coalition.

I was born the week of Nixon's obscenely nicknamed "Christmas bombings," the biggest bombing campaign of the Vietnam war. My earliest memory is watching the U.S. bicentennial celebrations on TV, when Ford was president. I saw President Carter in person when he was campaigning for reelection in 1980. I saw Bill and Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire when Bill was running in the Democratic primary.

I was studying in England when Bill Clinton won election and reelection to the presidency. By the time of Bush v. Gore in 2000, I had emigrated to Canada. But I was back, on the National Mall in Washington, when the first African-American president--a man who had beaten Hillary Clinton--was inaugurated in 2009.

The four-yearly intervals of the presidency have marked my life, even far from the United States. I haven't had to eat my hat yet. But I do know that writing about things in books can fire the imagination of readers, and perhaps help little girls' dreams come true.