He knows, just ask him.

I still rely on the wise advice of “Sarge” — a law-enforcement type I followed around for a story in the San Diego Reader a few years ago.  (It’s about a very busy bomb and arson squad near San Diego.)

Recently I emailed Sarge and asked how I could make my new tool-belt look older. No one wants to look like a rookie, right?

His response:

“As for how to age a tool belt, just leave it out on your back porch in the rain and sun for a couple of weeks and it will look pretty salty. That’s what fourteen months in and out of the jungles of Southeast Asia did to me and my Battalion of Marines. When we got back to Camp Pendleton we scared every one just from our salty “don’t give a shit” attitudes and appearance.”

Sarge is now “retired”–working for the feds. He knows a little something about everything.

A soldier’s courage takes many forms.

For a lovely–and timely–article that manages to be lyrical and tough all at once, see the blog post, “A Soldier Writes: Taking off the Armor” in The New York Times by Rajiv Srinivasan:

Just because a soldier doesn’t have a diagnosis of PTSD doesn’t mean he does not have life-altering post-traumatic stress. The war zone is not limited to the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan. The fight does not end for a soldier when he comes home. He may shed his helmet and rifle, but he still carries his armor.

For the full piece, click here.

On the day we honor Dr. King:

The dramatic “I Have a Dream” speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is the most often cited of the great man’s many public addresses and sermons. It is a remarkable moment in American history.

I think there is another speech that captures the man and the movement, and it came long before that 1963 day in Washington, D.C.

On Dec. 5, 1955, Dr. King was asked to speak at a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, on the eve of what would become the famous and effective Montgomery Bus Boycott. (Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a city bus and subsequent arrest sparked the boycott.) He was asked because he had less political baggage than the other, older black leaders. He wrote his speech very quickly.

Below are excerpts from the speech at the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Society, copied from “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Struggle” on the Stanford University maintained site of King archives. Bold sections are particular favorites of mine.

My friends, we are certainly very happy to see each of you out this evening. We are here this evening for serious business.  We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here also because of our love for democracy,  because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.

But we are here in a specific sense because of the bus situation in Montgomery. We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected. This situation is not at all new. The problem has existed over endless years. For many years now, Negroes in Montgomery and so many other areas have been inflicted with the paralysis of crippling fear  on buses in our community. On so many occasions, Negroes have been intimidated and humiliated and oppressed because of the sheer fact that they were Negroes. I don’t have time this evening to go into the history of these numerous cases. Many of them now are lost in the thick fog of oblivion, but at least one stands before us now with glaring dimensions…

Just the other day, just last Thursday to be exact, one of the finest citizens in Montgomery- not [just] one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery–was taken from a bus and carried to jail and arrested because she [Parks] refused to get up to give her seat to a white person…

And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. There comes a time.

We are here, we are here this evening because we are tired now…

And we are not wrong; we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I want to say that in all of our actions, we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour  and if we are united we can get many of the things that we not only desire but which we justly deserve. And don’t let anybody frighten you.  We are not afraid of what we are doing, because we are doing it within the law…

We are going to work together. Right here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, “There lived a race of people…a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization….”

The Big Green Machine gets greener.

What if they gave a war and nobody wasted fuel?

As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes, it might just happen. Seems the US Navy and Marine Corps  are thinking green. “God Bless Them. The Few. The Proud. The Green. Semper Fi.” as he puts it.

As Friedman points out, Big Oil has such a stranglehold on Congress that there isn’t a chance in hell that any fuel-reducing strategies are going to make it into practice. But the Marines and Navy are figuring out ways to float green ships and keep the lights on in the war with fewer of those hyper-dangerous fuel convoys. Fewer convoys, fewer soldiers killed by roadside bombs.

And that’s the micro view in this war. In the big picture, if we were less oil dependent, it would change the whole political and economic ballgame.

Aside from the enviro benefits and Friedman’s point about a weak-kneed Congress, this campaign reminds me how much our view of the military has changed, especially among young Americans. War is still “not healthy for children and other living things” as the poster on my childhood bedroom wall claimed, but attitudes are very different. I am still haunted by the booing and back-turning that happened when my sister’s friends came home from Vietnam. We sent boys to be killed in the jungle, and punished them more when they came home.

If the military stays on this green path, it will change this dynamic even more. Won’t it be amazing if the day comes when we look around and realize that the biggest eco-heroes are in uniform?

It’s true: It gets better.

For anyone who is getting bullied, left out, harassed because of her or his sexual orientation…or really, any “difference” from the so-called norm…this video project initiated by writer Dan Savage will strike a chord. He’s a professional speaker, so his video is more polished than the others, but the theme is the same: We all just want to be accepted for who we are. The project was initiated as a way to honor a young man who took his own life, and it has grown quite quickly. Check it out.

A tale of motherly love. Co-starring a turtle.

Mother’s Day is coming. I know this because every retailer in sight is trying to cash in. My gym has a Workout With Mom! special. My email is full of mail-order offers for chocolates, flowers, perfume. The spa down the street is even giving discounts on eyebrow and lip waxes in preparation for the holiday, which seems really weird if you think about it too long, so don’t.

Yes, the crass commercialism is alive and well. But that doesn’t mean I disdain the whole notion of celebrating our mothers. In fact, I think the holiday ought to be expanded to include the entire month.

We should all start dinner each night with a favorite mother story. I’ll go first.

My own mother passed many years ago, but she would have appreciated the story I heard the other day, told by a single mom of my acquaintance. I’ll call her Nancy. This tale began a decade ago.

Remember those little dime-store turtles you could buy for a buck? You’d bring them home and they’d last a couple of weeks, then off to turtle paradise they’d go, usually via a one-way ticket on Toilet Airlines.

Well, Nancy’s boy wanted one of those little critters, and being a game sort of gal, she bought him one.

Weeks passed. The turtle thrived. Nancy cleaned the bowl.

Months passed. The turtle thrived. Nancy cleaned the bowl.

Years passed. The boy left for college and, yes, Nancy stayed behind and cleaned the turtle bowl.

Eight years after its arrival, the turtle showed no signs of heading to the great beyond. By turtle standards, it was quite a bit larger. It was time for a change.

A lesser woman would have introduced the turtle to the backyard or a nearby pond, but not Nancy. She did what a resourceful and brave mother always does. She found a way.

She loaded the turtle into a totebag, put on her darkest sunglasses and drove to the nearest Pets-R-Us. There she slipped into the row of aquariums, and after making sure no one was watching, she plopped her hard-shell roommate into a tank with its own kind.

Never one to take separations lightly, she returned the next week to assure herself that the relocation had gone well.  You don’t live with a turtle for nearly a decade without committing its features to memory, so she quickly found him among the others. He seemed happy.

Now, I ask you, would anyone but a mother do this? I think not.

When Mother’s Day arrives, I will be thinking of Nancy and the other mothers I’ve known. Heroes, all.

A snapshot of us.

Sometimes an hour with the newspaper is all I need to see the immense contradictions and ironies of this country. These New York Times pieces are a case in point.

A story by Katie Zernike ponders polling of resentful Tea Party supporters.  I am ashamed of these fellow citizens; their racism, their short-sighted, self-serving demands for a return to the so-called  “real America” — code for a class system that keeps them snug and well-fed while shutting others out:

“In the poll, Tea Party supporters …were almost unanimous in their dislike of President Obama. Overwhelmingly, they said he does not share the values most Americans live by and does not understand the needs and problems of people like them. They are significantly more likely than Republicans or the general public to say that too much attention has been made of the problems facing black people, and that the policies of the Obama administration favor blacks over whites and the poor over the rich or the middle class.”

Then I turned to the obit page and saw that another highly visible figure in the civil rights movement has died: Benjamin L. Hooks. age 85. Hooks, who headed the NAACP for many years, was a minister, businessman and the first African American to be named a judge in Tennessee’s criminal courts. He was also the first to be appointed to the Federal Communications Commission. Hooks struggled to keep issues of civil rights in the forefront when Americans began to take the gains of the 1960s for granted. He wasn’t the most compelling public voice in the movement, but to look at his life and work is to understand the crucial changes wrought by Americans who would no longer tolerate Jim Crow.

And, finally, a profile of Eddie Feibusch, the undisputed king of zippers, reminds me that this is also a land of opportunity, imagination and very good stories.

The piece by Ralph Blumenthal describes the indefatigable 86-year-old:

“He sold a zipper for Margaret Truman’s wedding gown when Miss Truman, the president’s daughter, married Clifton Daniel in 1956, he is proud to say. He sold zippers to Nike for Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. And a prison in North Carolina called for a zipper for Bernard L. Madoff. Why? He doesn’t know.

New York City’s garment industry once had lots of zipper shops, some bigger than his, Mr. Feibusch says. But little by little they relocated, to China, India, Costa Rica. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks. ‘They couldn’t get their goods in,’ he said. “That was the end of the business.’

But not for Mr. Feibusch, a prewar refugee from Vienna who overcame not just the Nazis but also Velcro…”

Classroom heroes.

Jaime Escalante is dead, so take a moment, bow your head and thank the Great Whatever for stubborn, tireless, unrealistic teachers.

Escalante is the man portrayed in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver,” which I happened to see last week. . (It met two of my movie requirements: It allowed me to avoid doing actual work; and it stars Edward James Olmos.)

The movie is a Hollywood-ized take on the East Los Angeles high school teacher who refused to believe poor Hispanic kids were doomed to fail in school. He taught them calculus, they learned, they passsed the Advanced Placement Exam with flying colors. They even survived an erroneous charge of cheating one year.

Most of us have one teacher who gave us a push that changed our life direction; sometimes it was a slight veer, other times it was an about-face. Mary Donovan was mine. I was in her third-grade class in 1965-66. It was her last year before retirement, and if her energy or love of teaching had waned over her long public-school career, it didn’t show.

I was not a model pupil. Very small and scrawny for my age, hopeless in math and science, not yet confident in schoolyard sports. I missed school days often, and when I was present I was preoccupied with my parent’s exploding marriage.

In the spring of that year we were assigned our first “paper,” an independent project meant to be a page or two. I wrote a five-page draft (in pencil, yellow lined paper) and my theme was “How someone becomes a good person.”  (I dimly recall making a connection between Easter and heroics, which would now cause considerable turmoil in the very secular world of public education.)

Mrs. Donovan was effusive. She showed my final paper (blue ink, white paper) to the principal. She pinned it up on the bulletin board right next to the A-plus math papers of my classmates.

On the last day of school, we lined up to hug our teacher–another thing that is probably not okay anymore. When my turn came, Mrs. Donovan held me by both shoulders and said, firmly, “Kimmie, I just know you’re going to be a writer.”

We corresponded long enough that she saw her prediction come true. When she died in the late 1980s, her niece answered my last letter. “I know Aunt Mary loved hearing from you,” she wrote. “And I know she would have wanted me to send you the enclosed.”

It was the draft of my five-page paper.

Hero with a camera.

Photographer Charles Moore did as much to move civil rights ahead in this country as almost any other individual. He died last week, at age 79.

(See the obituary by Douglas Martin of The New York Times here.)

Moore’s famous photos of lawman Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor are iconic proof of a shameful side of American history. The swaggering Connor unleashed dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, who were seeking to end segregation. The action boomeranged, bringing the movement into nearly every home via television, newspaper and Life magazine coverage. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on Connor’s turf.

The New York Times obit for Moore quotes Hank Klibanoff, one of the authors of an outstanding book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation saying that the photographer was known for getting right in the middle of the action, regardless of the personal danger.

Moore, says Klibanoff, often used a short lens.

Who could have imagined how long his view would be?

But, enough about you…

I noticed that the stars who stood on stage at the Oscars last night and delivered their allegedly original and personal thoughts about the nominees for best actors were almost all talking more about themselves than the nominated person.

Now, that puzzled me. I would never selfishly commandeer a moment like that. In fact, all during the Oscar pre-season I kept quiet about the fact that I was way ahead of this sudden Hollywood interest in explosives. The makers of The Hurt Locker (winner for Best Picture; Directing, Film Editing; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing and Original Screenplay) are not the only people who know from bomb squads. But did I rub anyone’s nose in that? No, I did not.

Did I use my influence and power as a blogger to remind everyone that I spent quality time with the Bomb & Arson squad of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department four years ago, and wrote 8,151 words on the experience for the San Diego Reader? No, I did not.

Did I post any sample paragraphs from my story? No, I did not. If you read the following you will notice that it has never before appeared on this blog:

This is the first absolute truth of being a good bomb tech: You must have an abiding respect for every device you face down. There is nothing static about this respectfulness; it is fed by obsessive training, reading, tinkering, and shop-talking. That’s where the second absolute truth comes in: You can have surgeon-steady hands and a pair of solid-brass cojones, but without a brain crammed full of the chemistry, physics, history, sociology, and weaponry specs that make up bomb-smarts, you’re just a guy leaning over a pile of antsy gunpowder, hoping for a spell of good luck. -

-excerpted from “Things that go BOOM,” by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, San Diego Reader, April 2006.

Last night wasn’t about me; it was the big night for the folks who brought you The Hurt Locker, and I respected that.

A hero

I did some work for Portland author Lisa Shannon last year–small organizational tasks as she put together a retreat for writers. So my attention was grabbed by the print and video story on her by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof.

Lisa Shannon

The lives of Congolese women and their children continue to be ones of deep poverty, near-universal rape and other violence, and these documented horrors are ignored by most of us. Lisa, thank God, is constitutionally unable to look away and move on as others do in the face of injustice or tragedy.

Her book about her path to Congo, “A Thousand Sisters” comes out in April, and the few bits of it I read in draft were very good–honest and transporting. I’m watching Powell’s Bookstore’s shelves for it.

Kristof by necessity boils down the reasons Lisa has made this cause her life: An Oprah show on Congo caught her attention; she hosted a fund-raising run that became hugely successful; her dedication to Congo eventually crowded out other work and relationships.

There are , of course, many more complex things that move someone as talented as Lisa Shannon to take on this kind of work, rowing alone against a stiff tide every day to reach such a distant place. I’m grateful that she is so moved, so driven, so tireless.

Not quite a Christmas miracle, but close

The health care measure passed by the Democrats: It isn’t perfect, but it’s a whole lot closer to perfect than anything we’ve had so far.

If you’re a woman or a man, with kids or without, if you have a chronic health condition or someone who never darkens a doctor’s door…it’s all good. Go out and light a candle to the late Ted Kennedy today. And maybe one for the lobbyists from AARP too.

If you’re fuming about the possibility that your excellent existing coverage might cost a bit more next year…well, just go have some eggnog and get over your selfish self.

Onward science soldiers!

If you thought the so-called War on Drugs was pretty much lost, take heart. Here’s some news about a guy who might just get us pointed in the right direction.

One of the more arresting quotes has to do with alcohol abuse and defining a problem drinker:

“The measuring stick is known as ’3-14′ — so if someone is having 3 or more drinks a day, or 14 per week, that should raise a red flag, and physicians should be much better equipped to intervene and offer treatment options if there is a problem. Ideally, Dr. McLellan said, that treatment would be available in the medical system itself, not segregated in rehabilitation and detox programs, with their high failure rates.”

They know how to party

I can’t remember ever reading an article about a state dinner in the White House with such avid attention. But The New York Timesdescription of the dinner for India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh kept me riveted.

Sure, the President has a couple of wars to deal with, and that health care mess…oh, yes, and the limping financial situation…I’m following all that stuff. But it was with no little amount of relief that I turned to a description of how the First Family worked several messages into their menu.

Sustainable, healthy veggie items. Mixed collection of different china patterns. Very bright tablecloths and flowers that grew nearby instead of the usual flown-in-from-Holland varieties. And, lest anyone think this couple is all p.c. message and no fun, there were collard greens and cornbread on the table too.

Hail to the chief

A delayed flight led me to a long conversation at the airport with a charming 70-ish woman, on her way home from her mother’s 90th birthday party. The event had been a smash: all six children and a couple dozen grand- and great-grandkids in attendance, along with 75 guests.

With my mother-in-law coming up on a milestone birthday this spring, I recognized this valuable opportunity to get party tips from an obvious expert. After we’d covered the menu, music, centerpieces and invitations, she told me about the final touch.

Mother, it seems, had been quite firm about not wanting any presents. She plans to live to 100, she assured her children, but she has all the slippers, perfumed soap, nighties and framed photographs she needs. But would it be possible, she wondered, for the guests to get gifts to mark the occasion?

So that was how each of the attendees came to find a commemorative plate at his or her place. The back of each plate had the name and birthday of the guest of honor. The front? A handsome portrait of President Barack Obama.

“My mother, a black woman with a grade-school education raised a family of college graduates,” the woman told me. “She has a picture of President Obama in every room of her house. She told the guests that the day he was elected was the best moment of her 90 years.”

I wish I’d been at that party.

Kennedy book is a keeper


I just finished True Compass, Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, which was hurried to print following his death last month. It’s an engrossing read with good capsule histories of some of the biggest events of our time. It has one of the better concise treatments of the Vietnam war and the LBJ years that I’ve read in recent years.

It isn’t an historian’s work, although Kennedy provides a lot of new detail about his own campaigns and big moments in the Senate: civil rights debates, health care during the Clinton years, Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas hearings, to name a few.

It’s personal, but not tell-all. Most of the people Kennedy remembers with detail and skill are dead, but there is little or nothing in the 500-plus pages that would cause any spinning-in-their-graves. Think about that and ask yourself how often it happens. Answer: Not often. Most “celebrity” bios and autobios exist to set the record straight…from the author’s point of view, of course. The treatment of the Chappaquiddick disaster offers no new facts; it is convincing and sorrowful.

Kennedy wrote with the pride of a long-serving public servant, the gratitude of one looking back at a much-chronicled and very privileged life; and the deep regrets of a man who is taking his own measure with death just around the next corner.

I couldn’t agree more

I’ll be honest: There’s nothing quite as gratifying as hearing or reading strong opinions that mirror my own, voiced by folks who are better informed and smarter than myself.

To wit:

Columnist Maureen Dowd is a sharp and intelligent observer of the Washington scene she covers. (Her shrill tone irritates me, but there’s no denying the brainpower.) Her column on Congressman Joe Wilson’s outburst, in which he called the President of the United States a liar, gives voice to something we would all like to forget:

“But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.

Likewise, when Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of the most accomplished historians of our time, was asked by 60 Minutes what she thought Sen. Ted Kennedy added to the historical canon with his just-released memoir, she didn’t hesitate.

She noted that in his book “True Compass,” Kennedy frequently cites his deep admiration for President Lyndon Johnson and his accomplishments. Kearns Goodwin seizes on those comments because they differ so from the Kennedy party line. (Both John and Robert made no secret of disliking LBJ, who energetically returned their disdain.)

To my mind, Kennedy’s comments are significant because they might just nudge a younger generation of readers to give LBJ the credit he deserves, and which has so often been denied by people my age and older. Strong feelings about the American disaster in Vietnam keep many baby boomers from recognizing the huge accomplishments of the Johnson administration, including the passage of civil rights legislation that helped Barack Obama get where he is today.

Teddy (1932-2009)


We all called him by his first name, a nickname, really, and our parents never corrected us. In Massachusetts, we had the Kennedy Seat and we had an extra one for other people who wanted to run for the Senate. Teddy was a given, like four seasons and Plymouth Rock and sales tax.

He didn’t have the panache of John or the drive of Robert. He was the younger brother always trying to live up to what the Old Man would have wanted. He was the sometime-fuckup who drove drunk, cheated on an exam; who married the prettiest girl and then sneaked out on her. He might wake up with a ferocious hangover, but he put on his work clothes and went to the job he’d signed on for. He was just like us. He was one of us.

We mourned his fallen brothers, but Teddy was the guy who bought the round, who came to the funerals, who took care of his own. We watched him age, just like our fathers did, just like we did. He put on weight, his hair turned white. He quit tomcatting and settled down with a good woman. Whenever one of the Kennedy clan stumbled, or fell, he was the one who stood at the front of the church and explained the unexplainable.

In the end, Senator Kennedy had done more for America than all his brothers and sisters combined. He was braver and tougher than the Old Man.

Whenever we looked, he was on the job; he had our backs and we will always love him for it.