Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Terrified" by Kevin O'Brien. A Book Review

There is a creepy feeling out there, past the darkened window in the somnolence of the night. Someone is watching. You have something to conceal and no one to whom you may turn.

Lisa has two deadly problems. One from which she is hiding and another she doesn’t even imagine. Fleeing an abusive husband after faking her own suicide, Lisa escapes to Seattle armed only with a new identity and a moral dilemma. Her spouse, back in Chicago, has been charged with the brutal killing of his wife, which the press has dubbed ‘the trash bag murder’, and the evidence seems overwhelming. Should Lisa reveal she is alive to save the ego-maniacal sadist, or hunker down and let him take the fall even as she carries his unborn son?

‘Terrified’, the riveting new thriller from the pen of NYT bestselling author Kevin O’Brien, took me on a throat-tightening, gut-festering journey into depravity, darkness and lethality. From the neighborhoods of metropolitan Seattle to the hospitals and homes of Chicago’s elite, I guarantee you’ll be closing the drapes with all the lights blazing as you are drawn into Lisa’s descent into Hell-on-Earth. She struggles to survive and protect her child against a past that is catching up, a present that is lurking just out of sight—and out of control—to a future agonizingly desperate. Where do you go when there is no place to hide? You go where you are told and you pray.

The more you know, the more you fear. And the less you understand. That translates into a crackerjack novel I enjoyed until the last page. Thriller fans will be satiated briefly with this latest offering.  But after gobbling up this meal, we won’t be satisfied until Kevin once again leaves us terrified.

Just released, this reviewer purchased a copy, but also received a gratis copy for review purposes.

Terrified by Kevin O'Brien
ISBN: 978-0-7860-2138-3 link here 
Barnes & Noble link here

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Recipe for Creating a Progressive

First, a list of ingredients:

1.   One Moderate Republican
2.   A dose of inattention
3.   Three decades of being taken for granted
4.   A heaping helping of hypocrisy
5.   Spice with fanaticism as required to purge all who are not 'true believers'.

The first vote I cast in a presidential campaign was for Richard Nixon. Before Watergate had broken widely, before the eighteen minute gap in the tape stretched credulity with a ludicrous re-enactment featuring his secretary, before the Enemies List was widely known and while Deep Throat was still just a porn movie. 

Nixon was drawing the Vietnam war to a close, he was going to China, the economy was pretty good and his opponent, Eugene McCarthy, was seen as all about 'abortion, acid and amnesty' and had unceremoniously dumped his first running mate, Tom Eagleton, when it was revealed he had been treated for depression. Nixon prevailed in a landslide. He formed the Environmental Protection Agency, supported the Clean Air Act and OSHA and he even supported the Equal Rights Amendment and talked with the first men to set foot on the moon.

The subsequent scandal forcing him from office (and the one preceding it, forcing his VP, Spiro Agnew, out for crimes committed while in state office) tarnished his legacy, but did not erase his accomplishments. If he were alive today and running for President, it would have to be as a Democrat, for surely his heart would not be pure by today's conservative metric.

After the pardon (the correct decision--in retrospect) Gerald Ford effectively killed his chance of election, and I voted for the last Democrat I would support for the presidency until 2008. Jimmy Carter was a nice guy wholly out of his depth. His style was to immerse himself in minutiae which led him to constantly second-guess himself. The first Arab oil crisis, when OPEC began to flex its muscle with an embargo, left him in a sweater by the fireplace asking us to turn down the thermostat and drive less. Not a popular idea in gas guzzling, car-crazy America. The hostage drama in Iran, (the effects of which still echo in our foreign policy decisions nearly four decades later) and rescue debacle doomed his re-election.

In 1980 I voted for Ronald Reagan, and every Republican that followed him for twenty-eight years.

I felt pretty good about it, too. The hostages cleared Iranian airspace in time for a dramatic announcement during his inaugural address. Reagan out-dueled the Soviets by calling them out and spending them into a bankruptcy that would emerge with the fall of the Berlin Wall in George the First's term. He initiated negotiations to reduce nuclear weapons and saw them through. We felt better about ourselves as a nation. He stood up to a union when it staged an illegal strike by firing the entire striking membership of  PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) and barring them from future civil service. Like it, or not, he did presidential things in a presidential way, and if he seemed a little disengaged the last couple of years, that was okay, his team was doing just fine. I was a happy Republican. I voted for George Bush in 1988 and 1992. It seemed to me that raising taxes (even when he promised not to) made practical sense in balancing budgets, but, alas, Bill Clinton prevailed in '92. Neither Ronald Reagan or George H. W. Bush could be elected as Republicans in this current cycle.

I loathed Clinton and his cocky arrogance. His casual acquaintance with marital fidelity and then putting the (unelected) First Lady in charge of health care reform (crafted behind closed doors) set my teeth on edge. There was Travelgate and Troopergate. The Whitewater Land affair, the mysterious suicide of Vincent Foster, the FBI files fiasco and of course his transformation of an intern named Monica Lewinsky into a verb, which led to his impeachment. There was just an air of insolence and scandal that was unbecoming of a United States President.

I suffered mightily in those years, but in my disenchantment I failed to notice the signs that my party was changing. The 1994 Contract With America seemed mostly reasonable. After all, more than half of it had been lifted from Reagan's '85 inaugural address. What I missed were the tactical methods of achieving strategic goals. By now the Christian Coalition led by Ralph Reed and other uber-conservative religious figures like James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network and American Center for Law and Justice had succeeded in making abortion, gay rights and 'traditional' marriage hot-button issues. Like-minded conservatives swept into office by the tactics introduced by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich of scorched-earth demonization of political opponents were already poisoning public discourse.

Into this mix came conservative talk radio. With the FCC's elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the airwaves suddenly became ripe to be overtaken by pontificating blowhards under no obligation to be truthful or allow countervailing opinions. Rush Limbaugh went into syndication in 1991, just in time to position himself as a mouthpiece for the ultra-conservative re-visioning of America by calling for the dismantling of most of the reforms of the last century.

Seemingly overnight my party--that had championed clean air and workplace safety, that had destroyed the Soviets without firing a shot, stood up for voting rights and equal rights for women--had an agenda I didn't recognize-or like. Worse, they didn't care. In their new paradigm moderation was a sin to be converted or expunged, and I was an unrepentant sinner. I didn't understand gays and lesbians, but I didn't fear them. I had been in the arts, many were friends and co-workers. Vietnam had schooled me (not as a participant, but as an observer) that foreign military interventions were risky and apt to fail. Respecting religious liberty meant leaving people alone to practice their faith, not asking the State to impose mine. Still, I believed this was a short-term aberration. It would pass into the dustbin of history, leaving only a footnote. In 2000 I voted for George W. Bush. I was no longer a happy conservative. I was defending positions with which I was uneasy. But I was compliant, perhaps even complicit.

When 9/11 suddenly reshaped the world, and after some initial disorganization, George the Second seemed to take command of the reins of power. We were all focused on national unity and at some level, revenge. Taking down the Taliban in Afghanistan was dangerous, but probably necessary to deny safe haven to terrorists. Notwithstanding the experience of the Russians a generation earlier, superior technology and training would prevail, there would be no morass like Southeast Asia. Dick Cheney, a former White House Chief of Staff, Congressman and Secretary of Defense to George the First during Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War, was the Vice-President.

Donald H. Rumsfeld was sworn in as the 21st Secretary of Defense on January 20, 2001. Before assuming that post, the former Navy pilot had also served as the 13th Secretary of Defense, White House Chief of Staff (both under Ford), U.S. Ambassador to NATO, U.S. Congressman and chief executive officer of two Fortune 500 companies. 

Colin Powell was the Secretary of State. Retired four star Army General, Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former National Security Adviser, Vietnam veteran and the man I really wanted to run for the presidency in 2000. This was a dream-team. All the right people were in just the right places at the crossroads of history. What could possibly go wrong?

Lots, as we now know. The Veep goes off his rocker, the SecDef tries to reshape the military as it is deployed, the SecState gets spoon-fed bogus information by the Veep and mission creep sends us into a two-front war for a phantom threat. George fiddles while Baghdad burns.

Meanwhile, Republicans (my guys, remember?) are systematically disassembling controls on banking and investment (to be fair, this got underway during the Reagan administration), while bankers and money manipulators are conflating bad loans into can't miss vehicles for financial ruin.  Additionally, my team is slashing taxes on the domestic front while spending at a calamitous rate on the war front. Entire pallets of one-hundred-dollar U.S. greenbacks, lost or stolen from military cargo planes disappear into the desert. Soldiers of fortune posing as private contractors run riot. The privatizing of war turns out not to be a good strategy. A decade later we are still trying to extricate ourselves from a war longer that Vietnam. Longer. Almost inconceivable. Still, much of this was yet to be exposed in 2004, so I voted to re-elect George. You don't change presidents during wartime.

By 2006 the cracks in the foundation were apparent. Moderate conservatives, Reagan Democrats and right-leaning Independents  began abandoning the party. Apologists were trying to shore up support, but talk radio and Fox News on cable TV had staked out their territory with the ideologues to the far right wing with no intention of ceding any ground back toward the center. Little of the common sense and calm demeanor of the likes of William F. Buckley remained. Venomous rhetoric and reprehensible personal attacks dominated what passed for discussion. Politics was no longer an honorable profession of service and sacrifice to country; it was a warped version of reality television. It was professional wrestling in suits and ties. It was take no prisoners, manipulate voters, strangle dissent. It was time for a change.

 When the Republican nominee, John McCain and his Straight-Talk Express began kowtowing to the basest elements of the party and then selected arguably the least qualified running mate in U.S. history, I wasn't just unhappy as a member, I was disillusioned as well. For the first time in my life I began to actively campaign for a candidate. I donated money, went to rallies, exhorted college students a third my age to get involved. My family was astonished. I was astonished. But more than that, I was desperate. The country I loved was foundering on shoals of shame. Self-inflicted, cynical seeds of hypocrisy, class warfare, sexism and racism were battering our shoreline, and they were coming from where I once stood. I was mad as hell, and I wasn't going to take it anymore.

In 2008, thirty two years after the last time I supported a Democrat for the office of POTUS, I voted for Barack Obama. I had become an Obama-can, caucused for him, and wept unabashedly on election night.

The long knives have since truly come out, the TEA Party (Taxed enough? For the rich, the tax rate is one-third what it was in the golden era of Saint Reagan) has moved the Republican party so far right that it is now actually passing state laws (while doing absolutely nothing in Congress) trying to repeal the protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act of 1964, deny basic health care to women on religious grounds, send abortion providers into back alleys again, demonize illegal immigrants, gays, lesbians, and even women using contraceptives. For good measure, while they are at it, they would like to eviscerate Medicare and Social Security. Their jobs program seems to be firing as many government employees as possible, allowing the once mighty infrastructure of this country-the backbone of interstate commerce and largely started and built during Republican administrations--to fall to ruin, and continue to reward corporations to send work offshore.

It took three decades in the stew pot, but I am finally fully cooked. When I started as a conservative, well-run government was our priority, civil liberties were on our agenda. Conservative values meant properly managed; preservation of resources, clean air and water and moderate taxes, steady economic growth with enough regulation to ensure fair play but not so much as to strangle innovation. 

Privacy and the dignity to make our own decisions about our life meant something. Equal access to voting and education and justice were ideals for which we strived. Now all is dross. When I started, those were conservative values, now they find a home with Progressives. I am a happy progressive now. Can you guess how I might vote this November?

I'll close by re-interpreting a comment made by Ronald Reagan. I didn't leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left me.

Friday, March 16, 2012

In Defense of Arts

Try, for a moment, to imagine a world without music. Okay, that's unfair, you say, and almost impossible. Fine, let's try an easier one: Conjure up what life might be without literature. How drab an existence without the Bible or Shakespeare, Keats, Synge, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen or Anton Chekov. Dickens reduced to writing pamphlets for patent medicines. Jules Verne never creates Captain Nemo or the Nautilaus. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics never enter the vernacular. Dracula never meets Frankenstein in the movies. Inconceivable.

Let's pile on and strip away visual arts. Painting now consists of covering every surface with the same shade of gray. There are no statues, because there are no carvers to hew away the unnecessary bits of stone to reveal an inspiration.
All buildings are square. There is one font in your word program. All cars look the same (alright, bad example).

The point here is obvious. There is no modern civilization without the arts--all of them--and yet, whenever times are tough and education budgets are stretched past the breaking point, the razor sharp knives of the politicians know just what they want to slash; the arts.

Nationwide, schools eviscerate music, art and drama programs routinely. It's harder to slice away at English, but not so difficult to manipulate what is taught. Locally these cuts are seldom made because a majority wishes the programs gone, but instead because rules imposed from afar reward test scores, not learning. This ill-conceived, slavish devotion to better math and science rankings misses the bigger picture. The arts inform the sciences.

Music education does more than teach tunes. It conveys rhythm, structure, discipline and abstract thinking. It's learning an entirely new language, complete with its own special set of symbols, rules and nuances.

Visual arts satisfy that urge to comprehend and understand what we see around us. A sense of space, color and even time. An urge as ancient as the paintings in the caves of Lascaux, an opportunity to say to future generation "I was here and this is how I saw the world".

The engineers and astronauts that took us to the moon, invented computers and cell phones, created Teflon and Tang and freeze-dried ice cream were not novelists or writers of fiction. But they were inspired to make real the science fiction fantasies they surreptitiously read with a flashlight beneath their bed covers as children.

Authors like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula LeGuin and Ray Bradbury stoked the fires of imagination, and when that was coupled to the broader world of math and reading and science, the synergy opened floodgates of practical accomplishment.
A world without the arts is a barren place, and we suffer not just the loss of our unique culture and the essence of being human, but the very tools some think should be the only skills taught. The subtraction of one is the erosion of the other. We need to encourage, expand and value arts education because it serves the entire community and lifts us all, technician or dreamer.

In truth, the great leaps in science and technology have always been partnered with starry-eyed visionaries--in the arts--showing us what might yet be.