An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton

Dear Hillary:

I want to begin by saying a simple thank you.

Given how difficult the last few days have been for me (and all of your 50 million plus supporters), I can’t begin to comprehend the magnitude of your own disappointment. You worked your entire life to get to this moment, and you deserved to be the one who finally cracked that massive glass ceiling. I hope it gives you some comfort to know that the majority of Americans agree: you currently lead in the popular vote by nearly half a million, and that total is expected to grow by at least another million before all the votes have been counted. The sadly outdated Electoral College has stolen your victory and, perhaps appropriately enough, has set our country on a path to return to the stone age, as my oldest daughter, Carrie, aptly put it last night. After all the progress our beloved country has made over the past 50 years, the men of our nation, and yes, sadly, plenty of women as well, have decided that ugly path is the one we should take. To what end, I have no idea, but I fear they shall all soon discover that a return to the Andy Griffith and Leave It To Beaver 1950s they recall so fondly is in fact not all that wonderful for the majority of Americans. Like Trump himself, those were television shows not based on any actual reality. The world has moved on, and so too must the country which the rest of the free world looks toward as its ultimate shining example.

I am writing this letter to you today because I want you to know how very much you have meant to me over the years. I was raised by my grandmother and her mother, so I know about strong, independent women. My grandmother lived to be 95, and as the last few months of this campaign wound down, I found myself wishing so badly that she were here to sit beside me, to hug and shake our heads and cry as we bask in your magnificent accomplishments. I will never forget that scene on the final night of the Democratic convention when you accepted the nomination. It still brings tears to my eyes as I write this. You are such an inspiration! Your accomplishments as a public servant are second to none, as is your ability to persevere amid the torrid of hatred spewed at you from every angle. No matter how hard they smash you down, you refuse to “stay throwed,” as one speaker from the convention so clearly noted.

Whereas most in your position would have given up long ago, you didn’t quit and I know that you will continue to keep fighting still—for our children, our mothers and grandmothers, minorities, the disabled. Everyone who dares to be “different” because it means being themselves. You are our hero, and please don’t ever forget that. As we prepare to watch the republicans grab total control of our beloved nation, we need you more than ever. Be our voice. Guide us through the next four years with your wisdom and courage. And always remember, we love you from the bottom of our hearts.

Per Julia’s request, her signature has been added to this letter.

With warm and heartfelt sincerity from us both,
Connie Kirchberg
Julia Simpson Uttutia





With Prince’s passing, the world mourns the loss of another icon


You didn’t have to be a fan of Prince’s music to realize the height of his stardom: His amazing career spanned five decades. During that time, he released over a hundred singles and forty-plus albums, while also penning numerous songs for other artists. Prince won seven Grammy awards and has sold over a hundred million records worldwide. Not a bad legacy.

As is always the case when someone famous dies, there will be countless speculations over the coming weeks and months as to exactly how he died, a media-crazed fascination that I have never found relevant in any way. Prince was found dead in an elevator in his home. Maybe he had a heart attack. Maybe he overdosed on painkillers. Maybe it was just plain natural causes. Who knows? And really, what difference does it make? As with Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, the cause of death should have zero impact on Prince’s legacy. All that matters is the amazing music he left behind.

I can still vividly recall the day Elvis died. I won’t bore our readers with the details, but suffice it to say I was devastated. A man whom I greatly admired and had so strongly influenced my life with his music and humble beginnings was gone, just like that. As with most of Elvis’s fans, I became disgusted by the media circus that followed. The world had lost one of its most beloved icons, and all the press wanted to talk about was how he had died. Prescription drug overdose, do you believe it? As if the fact he had been taking too many pills somehow erased all the accomplishments of his storied career.

Sadly, the media responded in similar fashion when Michael Jackson died. Hopefully Prince will escape similar treatment, but I doubt it. The media loves nothing more than trying to tear down our heroes, as if doing so somehow makes they themselves seem more relevant.

On a happier note, I was thinking this morning about how different a world it is today than when Elvis died in 1977. Back then, grieving fans talked to each other on the phone or got together face-to-face, or—imagine this—exchanged hand written letters via the postal service! Today there is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and dozens of other social media outlets where distraught Prince fans can instantly connect with others, be they up the street or across the world. It’s good to know these outlets, which far too often provide an anonymous forum for social bullying, can also do some good in the world. Be sad and grieve, Prince fans, and be grateful you can do it together, with love.

Amtrak’s San Joaquin Train never seems to have a Backup Plan

Amtrak-trainAnyone who has caught a train in Europe knows why trains are great.

Amtrak customers may be a more ambivalent crowd, for good reason. Despite the presence of trains in the USA since my Scottish train conductor great great grandfather’s time, we haven’t got the whole process down pat yet. Nor may we ever, despite our desire for a bullet train. That will be bedlam at high or no speed.Timetables, passenger disturbances and what’s on the tracks today are the biggest problems faced by Amtrak personnel in respect to daily business.

I am not going to bring up grumpy conductors. Never mind, I just did. I can understand why conductors are grumpy. I would be grumpy too if I had to operate without a backup plan. Unlike airplane stewards and stewardesses, conductors are not allowed to breathe a word about why a train has stopped unless expressly given permission. If they tell the truth, they get the fingers of one hand cut off, and sometimes an ear.That is scary business, so they don’t break the rule.

These poor souls have to battle irritable customers who are sick of sitting on seats going nowhere.They have to battle rude Americans (and there sure are a lot) who won’t move and let families sit together. They have to figure out what to do with roaming lunatics who won’t pay for tickets and who do strange things in public. Worst of all, the poor conductors have to operate without a backup plan.

Here are the kind of problems faced by the Amtrak San Joaquin personnel (truly the loveliest people you could hope to meet except when they have been stressed for 8 to 10 hour stretches):

1. An unscheduled train is coming towards another train on the same track. There seems to be no procedure in the Amtrak bylaws to deal with this. Solution? Stop on the tracks until the danger is over or someone calls the engineer to tell him to go or there is a collision.

2.  A bus has parked on the track. Solution? Stop on the tracks. Wait. Someone has to call the police, who begin a slow and laborious investigation. Meanwhile, conductors may not tell the passengers much. Sometimes they will indicate there is a stopped vehicle. If asked questions, conductors shrug and caress their ears and fingers. They don’t know. This has happened so many times in my family’s experience that I know for sure no procedure has yet been outlined. Everyone is at a loss.

3. A woman in line inside the Amtrak station details, in a concerned voice, that she absolutely has to get on a train to get to an interview. Since she doesn’t have any money, she repeatedly asks the clerk what they should do about this. Since there is no procedure, the line stops moving until the woman wanders away. (I have witnessed this scene.)

4. A vagrant wanders into a car and refuses to pay. Solution? The train stops. After an hour two policemen arrive and the man is handcuffed and led away. If the police are busy, tough luck to the people on the train. I saw this too.

Three Audiences Who do not need a Good Story

download once upon a timeOf all the places, situations and audiences I can think of to tell a good story in,at, or to, there are three that should be avoided at all costs, for they are the worst. They are listed in order of disaster:

1. At the doctor’s office: Don’t tell a good story to a doctor.  A close friend complains of a doctor who is enthralled by veiling women (my friend and I are both  wives or ex wives of Saudis). Her doctor asks questions, gets off track and forgets to order tests.  

2. Don’t tell a good story to a person whose identity is in question.  This can happen over the phone if you are not careful.  I once got a phone call, I thought, from a woman who had the same name as another one who had just done my hair. (I had tried that day not to burst into tears at the salon.) To this “other” lady, I vented my frustration and realized, at the conclusion, that I was telling an angry story to the woman who had  seemingly dropped cans of paint on my head. Such vengeance was not desired.

3. Don’t tell a good (sad, pathetic, etc.) story to a teacher in a classroom, especially if it is to explain absences or missing homework. Excuses are one thing; long stories to explain why homework is missing are quite another. I do not want to hear that a student had to be present for his friend’s wife’s birth of a baby. Now will I ever believe that the urine-soaked papers held in a plastic bag are the work of a cat.'Fine, I'll go to my room, but one day when I'm a famous artist you'll be telling this story as an amusing anecdote!'

Can you spell “cheating” ?

Christmas_ScrabbleMy husband has a friend named Sammy, a reader/writer who wallows in books and finds the library the most arousing of repositories. (We have no quarrel with his assessment.) Add to this picture that Sammy is quite the social animal and likes to game.

Nothing so far-fetched as Las Vegas, mind you. Sammy plays board games. He has a high IQ and relishes the challenge of finer fare. However, being convivial and kind, Sammy ends up facing all kinds of people from his side of a board–anyone who wants to play.

For years, Sammy has played Scrabble with a fellow named Frank. They are an odd couple. Sammy has always won 80 to 90% of the games. No one who knows Frank is surprised, for Frank is not a book reader.  Why Frank loves to play Scrabble with Sammy has been a bit baffling.

There were times when Sammy was sick but Frank, without sympathy, would insist on the weekly Scrabble game. Decorum demanded that the winner give the loser an opportunity to win. Perhaps Frank thought Sammy would do poorly when under the weather. Sammy would take his Tylenol for Flu, put on his slippers, get out the board, play, and win.

'Geoffrey got a triple word score! . . .no, we weren't playing scrabble, I give him points if he strings three words together.'These days something has changed. Frank is no longer losing. Sammy confides that while winning at Scrabble had become so predictable he wanted nothing better than to quit, he kept on out of kindness. However, since he is at present losing, quitting will make him out as a cad. The odd thing is that Frank still does not read books.  Sammy has trouble understanding the victories of his barely literate friend.

I think Frank is memorizing words with high-point letters like X and Z in them. Either that or he is consulting his phone when Sammy leaves the room to grab a couple of drinks or snacks. Is it cheating? I don’t know.

I have had students who are unskilled English writers but who can memorize grammar rules and spelling.  They cannot conjugate properly when writing, nor, for that matter, can they string together words coherently in speech. This will come later, if they become readers. However, some of these students show the ability to memorize for the sake of multiple choice quizzes. Conscientious writing teachers are wary of making classes manageable for students like these—unless the latter actually fall into the tempo and flow of a language through reading, they are cutting corners. There are problems for students who pass writing courses without actually learning to write (because they are not good readers). These problems impact others, demonstrating the injustice of lax college English teachers.

A case in point is that of a Middle School science teacher who wrote with English grammar and spelling mistakes all over the board, making the students snicker. Her students did poorly because they could understand neither her written nor spoken words. Nonetheless she was passed through her college English classes and got a full-time job making more, per hour, than the adjunct college writing teachers who “mercifully” allowed her to pass due to her memorization techniques.

Let’s be Frank about Scrabble. Is memorization a fair demonstration of skill?SavageChickens.com_-297x300

Or is it a kind of cheating?


Chocolate in Kilchberg

images 5043344_f520 liquid_chocI love chocolate. I prefer the Swiss kind, very dark. (It helps me write.)

I once went to a chocolate town in Switzerland named Kilchberg. That city is the home of the Lindt & Sprungli factory.

Kilchberg is not a typical jumping-off spot for the tourist with a Swiss Rail pass, but it lured Thomas Mann at the end of his life. His son Golo Mann, an essayist and historian, also settled into Kilchberg at the end of a distinguished literary career, living in his parents’ house with his mother.

So Kilchberg has this literary and chocolate past, you see. If ever writers needed a pilgrimage spot, Kilchberg could work.

The town smells insanely good. The Lindt & Sprungli factory furnaces burn off the “bad” chocolate (as if that adjective could be stuck next to the noun and make sense). So the closer you get, the dizzier you become. Tours can be arranged at this factory, and visitors are given bags of sample chocolate.

I guess there used to be bad chocolate. As most prolific readers (that would be writers) know, chocolate was heavily in use in the New World, but not like we eat it today. Sugar wasn’t part of the mix. Ground cocoa was roasted and mixed with red pepper, vanilla and water. The Milanese traveler Girolamo Benzoni said chocolate seemed “more suited for pigs than men.” About 70 years later, the Spanish began to experiment with chocolate.Zürichsee_-_Kilchberg_Lindt_&_Sprüngli_IMG_0227

The trend of eating chocolate in sold form spread from Spain throughout Europe. In 1674, chocolate in the shape of rolls and cakes “in the Spanish fashion” were being sold in Lodon. Rodolphe Lindt (1855-1909), following in the footsteps of chocolatiers Henri Nestle (who invented condensed milk) and Daniel Peter (who mixed the condensed milk with chocolate) brought chocolate into new states of lusciousness.

Lusciousness is of course what writers need in order to think, write and console themselves.

The reason Lindt is called Lindt & Springli is due to Rodolphe Sprungli-Schifferli buying the Lindt trademark and recipe secrets in 1899 for 1 1/2 million Swiss francs.

This sum (even then!) should give writers pause. We are all trying to write the breakout novel. People eat chocolate more than they read. Who said the limits of chocolate have been explored? Or for that matter, why invent or write anything? Employees at Lindt & Sprungli can eat as much chocolate as they want.

What are we doing at our computers when we could be in a chocolate factory?





The Balancing Act of a Competent Marine Sergeant/Squad Leader

It would be an understatement to say my students inspire me. Content is the A number one thing that grabs me–that and realness. When student writers do that, I don’t see any grammar or punctuation errors because I am so gripped by story. Last week I had the honor to read many such essays.

This is one of the best: 944706_638532842827353_1720103819_n

The Balancing Act of a Competent Marine Sergeant/Squad Leader
By Stephen Perry

Sergeant Caleb Bensen wasn’t an immensely imposing man. Bensen only stands at about 6 feet tall and weighs in at just under 180 pounds. An imposing figure, while not always necessary to a squad leader, helps to inspire fear, which is useful for motivating subordinates. What makes Bensen such a magnificent squad leader is his ability to command respect, not only from his underlings but his superiors as well.

Bensen is possessed of a skill that is highly valued in the Marine Corps: competence. Few other leaders in our company could boast the level of competence that Bensen had. Whereas other leaders would complete tasks by the book, which means that simple tasks might require hours to perform, Bensen could find a simpler way of doing things that would save everyone time. The commanders would often take note of Bensen’s ability to coordinate so well with the members of his squad. While no leader was by any means ignorant, many lacked the creativeness of Sgt. Bensen.

Several of the other leaders in the company would always find ways to set themselves apart from the members of their squad. This is to avoid what is known as fraternizing and to ensure orders are always obeyed. A friend telling another friend to run through a hail of bullets doesn’t persuade with the same weight or urgency as an order given by an aloof superior. With Bensen, however, not one member of our squad would ever question such an order (even though he was on familiar terms with his subordinates). Bensen was more than just a leader; he was also a friend. Bensen had no issue with sitting on a post with members of his squad through the long hours of the night while others might prefer to relax in the heated command post. Bensen would always rather stand in the cold among his friends.

Short fuses are a part of everyday life in the Marines. I can hardly remember a day in which nobody was being yelled at for something. Bensen on the other hand very rarely needed to yell. That’s not to say there wasn’t punishment distributed for any wrongdoings, but Bensen was never mad when he did these things. Even while Skyping with his fiancé who was back in the USA, Bensen always managed to keep his calm composure. Bensen was able to keep his calm even when others would snap at him. He was able to recognize that others were just going through a hard time.

Bensen was able to lead his men through some of the darkest days of their lives. His ever-contemplative mind, friendship and composure prevailed in our time in Afghanistan. For not all the battles we fought together were physical; many of the battles we fought raged within ourselves. However, thanks to my leader Caleb Bensen, I survived those times. His success as a leader delivered us all, enabling us to return home.