As a Floridian, I take personally George Zimmerman's vigilante-style shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was armed with nothing more than a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona iced tea when he was gunned down.  My state's Stand Your Ground law is no more dangerous than in any of the other states that have similar statutes, but this case may be the reason it gets totally out of control.   My conversation with a young, soft-spoken white man working as a bagging clerk at an upscale grocery store in St. Pete tonight brought home the fear I have had since the trial began, that Zimmerman would somehow be acquitted of shooting Martin for the well-known "crime" of walking while black, or in this case, wearing a hoodie and running while black.

The young store clerk, 17, told me that he agreed with his grandpa that Zimmerman is innocent, although he was quick to point out that he isn't racist, like his grandpa is.  To my question,  "How is your granddad racist?" he gave this chilling answer.

"Because he says, if Zimmerman goes free, he's going to get his shotgun and go coon- hunting himself."

I stood in the rain, in the parking lot, until I convinced that kid, same age as Trayvon, to go home and watch the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, the young woman who was talking on the phone to Trayvon just moments before he was killed.  Although the defense lawyers and the media tried everything they could to discredit her,  from her speech to her looks to her lack of education, her cell phone told the truth of what happened.  It recorded the very shot that killed her friend.

This month, as I have watched all the convolutions of the teams of lawyers that make up this trial, I keep thinking of that one scratchy audio tape that tells it all.  Trayvon Martin could not have been beating up George Zimmerman just moments before Zimmerman chased him down and shot him in the heart.  Trayvon was still talking on the phone, trying to get home with the candy he had promised to share with his younger brother while they watched the All Star game. He was not doing any of the things his killer claims he was doing, except for a few desperate seconds, when he tried to get away.

And so I post, above, the prayer that a Florida pastor put up on a church sign, shortly after this crime happened, and I post two photos of the thousands of people from all over the country who held vigils for the "Million Hoodie March," in solidarity with Trayvon's family.  Here is a family in California and a minister in New Mexico - wearing hoodies for justice.   Thank you, all, who insisted, last year, that Zimmerman finally be arrested and tried, and who are praying for the jury in  Sanford tonight.
 
 
Well, it's finally happened. A few hundred of Willa Cather's carefully protected letters have been published - 566 out of over 3,000 that have been found so far. I just finished holding forth about them on Amazon, glad for Andy Jewell and Janis Stout that all their years of work have paid off, but also a bit sorry that so many of Cather's deepest sorrows will now be known to the world. She was such a private person, and I've tried over the years to only use segments of the letters, in performance, that enhance her public persona, not blur the personality traits she most valued. 

"No Sag."  That was Cather, and yet her private letters show her definitely wincing, if not sagging, at some of the things her siblings said and did, to each other as well as to her. At least the mystery is over, as to why she fought so hard to keep them unpublished. It isn't what so many thought - that she was squeamish about being "outed" as a lesbian.

Not at all. The letters show her fully herself, albeit painfully coming to terms with how she would be treated by her family as well as the families of the women she loved - Louise Pound's in Lincoln and Isabelle McClung's in Pittsburgh. When similar things were said and done to Gertrude Stein when she fell in love with May Bookstaver, one of her fellow medical school students at Johns Hopkins, Stein fled Baltimore for Paris and never returned to America until she was famous.

Not Cather.  She stayed put, but retreated into the closet except to her closest friends and perhaps a few trusted members of her family. Certainly, her nieces who spent parts of their summers on Grand Manan knew the importance of "Miss Lewis," Cather's partner of nearly 40 years. 

So many memories flood back, seeing these letters in print, most of which I've read over the years, from that first train journey in 1979 from DC to Hastings (and on to Red Cloud by car, since the train didn't stop there anymore, by then). Not all of my favorite letters made the edit, of course, including the best of the scandalous "Pound letters" Mildred Bennett furtively showed me before she died in 1989, after a decade of learning to trust my Cather instincts and where I was going with the whole Chautauqua thing

"I had to promise never to show these to anyone, in order to be able to write my book without getting sued, " Mildred said with a twinkle in her eye, shoving a manila envelope filled with the dangerous missives across our work table in the Red Cloud lumberyard, which she had purchased, hoping to make it into an international study center for Cather scholarsHer book was published in 1951, just four years after Cather's death, the first "unauthorized" biography.

As Willa Cather once said, "It is good that the dead sleep soundly." So far the earth has not been disturbed around the Old Meeting House Burial Ground in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire, where Miss Cather and Miss Lewis are interred.  One hopes that they would be smiling, just a little, could they know that the world has come home to the parish, now, and everyone knows how much they treasured one another, for all those years.





 
 
Amazon is egalitarian, as a book marketplace.  Call it the great equalizer.  Take the book above, for example, from a university press, written in thoroughly academic language. Few will ever read it, although it is deserving of the bestseller list.  Dr. Heather Russell has something to say about America and race; something valuable, timely and timeless.
I met her a couple of months ago in her role as lead scholar for the Zora Neale Hurston teacher seminar funded by the NEH at Teaching Florida, an umbrella group of the Florida Humanities Council.  She is a brilliant thinker, and she's written an important book.

I do my part to help get the word out by reviewing it on Amazon, by showing it here, and by being very glad that at least its publisher had the good sense to give it a Kindle edition, reasonably priced, although well over the norm of $9.99.   The very readers who should have access to it - students of history and literature - probably won't download it at $14.72, unless it is required reading.  But at least Heather Russell's many years of work is available to an increasingly wide audience of shameless e-readers - people who read books primarily on their Kindles, Nooks, smart phones, and tablets.

On the other hand, here is another book that almost everyone who cares at all about Florida will probably read, and if they believe it, will come away feeling horrible about the place.  T.D. Allman does quite a number on his home state.  The only comfort is that much of it is not "The True History of the Sunshine State, " as his subtitle claims.

If you hear him speak before you read the book, you will know that he did not do one speck of primary research.  He just put together ten years' worth of internet browsing, from his residences in Paris and New York.  It shows in his notes - all secondary sources - many of them shoddy.  Any middle school or high school student would be held to higher standards on a history project or term paper.

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If you only read his misinformation on Harriet Beecher Stowe and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings - you'll  get a belly full of malarkey.  He misquotes Stowe and misses altogether her most important writings on Florida.  He makes wildly inaccurate claims about Rawlings in a variety of arenas, seeming not to know that she wrote anything  more than The Yearling.  Click on his cover to read my very watered-down review (if you missed it up above).  Amazon will not allow much in-depth criticism, but if you want to read my two earlier and very meaty drafts, let me know.

As you'll see, facts never get in the way of Allman's determination to make Florida seem like a hot mess.  Just remember the boast he made on WLRN in Miami, when asked how and where he went about discovering the so-called "True History of the Sunshine State" -   

"I'm proud to say, I did no primary research for this book."   Enough said. 



 
 
Thankful that there are still many things unknown under the heavens, these are the puzzles I have undertaken for the first quarter of 2013.  One I really need to know, for an immediate project, and the other two are somewhat debatable.  (Actually, there are four questions, but I seriously doubt that I have the nerve to ask the fourth, in this venue.)

Okay - here goes.  Question #1:  Where, in the voluminous writings of Dr. Samuel Johnson, does he directly address the necessity for writing the truth?  Most likely, only a Johnson geek would immediately know the answer to this.  So if you're out there, welcome, sage scholar!  Please help me to isolate the source for Dr. Johnson's stern admonition that one must write the truth "to save mankind from despair." 

 Stay tuned for why it's so important and how it relates to Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her travels in Europe immediately after the end of World War Two.

Question #2:  Where did Ponce de Leon land?  Believe it or not, the answer is still unknown, since 1513, and will probably never be known for sure, but the  state of Florida, en masse, is determined to ferret out every possibility, now 500 years later.

The top contenders, according to Jeff Klinkenberg of the  St. Petersburg Timesare St. Augustine and Melbourne.   Others place the landing somewhere in between, like Daytona.  Wouldn't that bolster bike week attendance, with a conquistador theme? USF History Professor Michael Francis, who is accompanying the Florida Humanities Council's tours to Spain as resident scholar, says the whole state should celebrate, and not worry about exactly where Ponde de Leon came ashore.

"I don't understand the competition," Professor Francis told the TimesSpoken like a cool-headed professor who does not understand the need for tour guides to make claims that will draw more visitors to already-clogged St. Augustine streets.

How about the now-discredited Spanish historian who claimed to have once been in possession of Juan Ponce de Leon's log and used it to calculate that the landing happened further north, right around Ponte Vedra, between St. Augustine and Jacksonville? What a downer that would be. 

Ponte Vedra is a tiny place - more of a community than a town - not much room for parades or hordes of motorcycles.  Let's hope the mayor of Ponce de Leon's home town in Spain can rebuild the case for St. Augustine when he visits the Oldest City next year to commemorate something - the anniversary of what? Meanwhile, let the jousting begin, and stay tuned for updates.

Question #3:  What has happened to Suite 101?  If you don't know what that is, you missed a great chapter in the online writing frenzy.  If you are familiar with the name, you've probably been either a writer or a reader of  "the Suite" and you surely have an opinion as to what happened and why.  I'll be giving you mine, as my Suite 101 writings, purged and unpurged, are collected for posterity.   Feel free to comment on your own Suite 101 journey, for good or ill.  It's a serious question.  I really would like to hear the real story of what befell Suite 101, if anyone knows.

I have high hopes that each of the above question will be answered, or at least debated, in its own blog post, as we opine into the new year.  Anyone want to get an early start?
 
 
This is a vintage column from my once-weekly efforts for the Bolivar Herald-Free Press, first published on October 14, 1984, after the Bush-Ferraro V.P. debate.  Thanks to the Missouri Historical Society, which keeps old newspapers in its archives, these dated but sometimes historically interesting jottings will be available in book/ebook form soon.

Of all collegiate contact sports, the one most likely to lead to law school is Argumentation & Debate.  Few call it "argumentation" because most strive for the more refined art of "debating." What the political candidates are doing this year, however, is easy to recognize.  It is as my mother used to say about a place in town called the So-and-So Bar & Grill.

"More barring than grilling, " she would declare, crossing her arms grimly.  Following Mama's system of analysis, this election year we have more arguing than debating.

In order to have a debate, both parties have to agree to stick to the topic.  It also helps if debate participants have some kind of organizational pattern for the crib notes they wish to present as gospel.

Our esteemed debate coach, Bob Derryberry, called it the flow of the argument.  You had to be able to follow it by keeping a "flow chart."   Judges often agreed with rebuttals where you could hold up your legal pad and say, "My opponent had no substantive points to make.  Therefore, my flow chart is empty."

I dare you to try to keep a flow chart on the recent arguments being passed off as debates on national TV.  Not by paying rapt attention to the broadcast, nor by a close reading of the transcripts, is it possible to follow the candidates or the reporters who are in charge of whatever thinking might go on during the verbal jousting match.

That the American people seem willing to let their intelligence be trampled in this fashion is not the point.  No contest between politicians has ever been expected to be intelligent, or even digestible.  You might as well turn two country preachers loose on the subject of who killed Jesus.

So far, the presidential candidates have sounded more like evangelists than a nasal Norwegian and a badly cast Hollywood actor.   They can hardly be blamed, when they are forced to respond to questions about born-again Christianity and abortion as if these are valid government issues.

The vice presidential candidates at least looked as if they had had a good night's sleep, although President Reagan's complaint that the Democrats use an unfair degree of stage make-up must be taken seriously.   Can it be true that the gipper never got so much as a touch-up during all his years in the saddle?

Lies both cosmetic and statistical tend to glare under the debate spotlight.  Laugh them off, voters.  If we can't laugh at these bozos, the Moral Majority may well take over the rest of the government.  Whatever you do, avoid taking seriously most of what they say, especially when they sound as strident as George Bush sounded in his Thursday night hysterics.

True, he felt that he had to make up for Reagan's Sunday night stupor, but 90 minutes at the same pitch is too much for even die-hard Republicans.   Dr. D. would say, "That's why we take turns speaking.  Bless our hearts, we musn't wear out our welcome."

GOP authorities now protest that the President was in the odd position of knowing too much to be coherent.  From the sounds of it, the Vice President knew too little.

Anyone who has ever debated in a semi-final round, as the candidates are doing in front of millions this year, can empathize with them, to a degree.   Sometimes you know you have the better evidence, but it won't roll off your tongue.   You can't find where you put it, in your notes, or in the dark recesses of your mind.  

Geraldine Ferraro knew what she had to do.  She did not misplace one piece of evidence.  After all, a woman must be twice as good, when competing with men, to even stay in the contest.

For many Americans, Vice President Bush shamed himself when he refused to give the Congresswoman the dignity of her title.  Every time he began with, "Ms. Ferraro, let me help you understand, " women everywhere gritted our teeth, wanting her to have a come-back, but knowing that she risked being called "bitchy" if she said too much.

Congresswoman Ferraro pulled it off, with just the right touch.  She finally called him on his condescending tone, getting wild applause after  saying, mildly and calmly, "I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your  patronizing attitude."

Only minutes after the debate ended, the all-male panel declared Bush the winner.  He  swaggered around, bragging that he "kicked a little ass."  Historically speaking, those of us who will never forget that debate know that for us, it had a very different outcome.  



 
 
I wish you could have seen her, perched on the barnyard gate, cane pole in hand, making sure all the cows moved "dreckly along."  She was something to behold when she joined my brother and me for a game of softball in the pasture.   She could hit harder and throw farther than either of us.  My mother.

She would be embarrassed to know that I now quote her more often than Shakespeare, more often, even, than Flannery O'Connor.   She never thought much of herself.  That's the way with mothers.

She died in 1980, a fact that belies the strength of her presence.  Living 32 years without her has not diminished the 25 years in which she was a constant in my life, even after I moved away from Missouri.  She loved to hear them announce over the loud speaker in her nursing home "Mrs. Steinshouer - your daughter from Washington is calling."

Some things cannot be said over the telephone.  I had never had the  luxury of slow, leisurely conversation with my mother until she was hospitalized, wired to a heart monitor, and I flew in from DC to spend a week with her.  I spent every day there, feeding her special things and asking her questions about her life.   I was finally old enough to know what questions to ask.   I wanted to know what she had been told about the Trail of Tears, the route her mother's people had taken that ended with them in southwest Missouri instead of Tallequah, Oklahoma.  I wanted to know about her sister, my Aunt Ruby, who died mysteriously in 1946, her four children left at the mercy of foster care and finally adoption.  My Mom never got over the fact that she couldn't take and raise those kids.  She already had too many children of her own.

Up until then, Mama had kept me at the kind of fond arm's length so typical of a reticent country woman.  When she knew she was dying, something seemed to let go in her, and she could tell me the truth of Ruby's death from a back alley abortion.  Even while we acknowledged that talking had never come easily to us, that our lives had never meshed very well, she spoke with ease and clarity, although her voice was weak with illness.

It was amazing to hear her say "I love you" for the first time, and to hold her hand, also  for the first time.  That was the last time I saw her.

I spent most of my high school years being ashamed of my mother because she had a very limited education, seldom wore shoes, and said "shore instead of "sure."  Somewhere in college, I began to appreciate who she really was - tough as nails with a keen wit and a yen for a lively spat.   She could also be gentle as summer rain, when she needed to, when my father or uncle went on a Bible rant and all she could do was look at her children, ordered to be seen and not heard. 

I remember so well the smile in my mother's eyes, at those times when she was also forbidden to speak, but wanted to let us know that it would soon be over, and we would be alone again, offspring of an itinerant preacher who was often not at home.  All the tools for survival I would have, I learned during those times when she could teach us medicine ways with nature (oh the bitter brews she concocted, digging up roots to boil for various ailments), and how to fancy-dance with the radio.

When I graduated in 1973, last of her seven daughters, the FHA Chapter of Pleasant Hope High School held a special evening in honor of the mother of all those future homemakers.  By that time, she had to use a cane to get around.  In a few more years, it was a walker, and finally she just sat on the edge of the bed most of the time, needing a wheel chair in order to go the bathroom.   But she never lost the desire to get up and cook a pot of beans, and she never forgot how to milk a cow or throw a softball.

She never saw Paris or Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., but she was thrilled that I had.  On this Mother's Day, I wish I could bring her an orchid.  I wish I could give my mother a few more years and a little less corn to hoe.


(excerpted from Letters to Bolivar:  Columns in the Bolivar Herald-Free Press, 1981-84, soon available as an e-book.)

 
 
Like revisiting old friends (and in some case, friends with whom I no longer have anything in common), I have recently gone through two volumes of old poems, throwing out what I could not bear to put back in circulation and completely rewriting others.  A few were still good enough to be left intact - a very few.

I think it's called "building a platform," this releasing of old writings to pave the way for new ones.  So far it's been fun, albeit sometimes  poignant to read things written for or about people who were very much alive and now aren't.

I'm writing this from The Villages, where I did Chautauqua last night, combining two of my most popular characters for snowbird season in Florida:  Laura Ingalls Wilder and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.  The Lifelong Learning College actually made money on me, with nearly 200 paying customers.  My groupies were there to fill up the first couple of rows and take me to dinner.  Many thanks to Beth Willoughby and her "On the Go Girls" for always making me feel like a celebrity.  As usual the "cast party" after the show was full of lively conversation and delicious food.

Much appreciation to Dawn Tripp, who has been bringing me to The Villages for years, always with good humor and patience, since I nearly always get lost.  The population up here has grown to 85,000.  It's bigger than Ocala, fronting on three counties.  I can't explain it - all I can say that people sure seem happy here - not a bad way to sprint into the dying of the light.  Might as well, eh?  (Nice to see some Canadian friends in the audience last night, too.)

Now waiting in my room for a reporter from Sarasota to call for an interview about the world premiere of "Marjory and Marjorie," coming up at the end of the month.  Or is he calling about "America at War," also in Sarasota, next week?  I guess I'll find out.

Life is such a mix, of darkness and light, sunshine and rain.  The drive up here last night was arduous, through slippery rain and winter traffic which produced a couple of serious accidents and made a two-hour drive last closer to five hours - lots of rehearsal time.  I always run lines in the car, glad to no longer get strange looks from other drivers.  I just put my earpiece on and they think I'm talking on the phone.

I've enjoyed having my hair a little longer, especially when I was in Omaha recently for the planning of the Free Land Chautauqua, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Homestead National Monument.  But now it's make way for Gertrude Stein and people calling me "sir" at the checkout.  I must remember to pack the dangling earrings.


 
 
More Poems from the Road - the new edition -  is now available electronically.  It is exciting to be slowly entering the age of  e-publishing, reaching potential readers in Europe that would have been impossible before amazon.com opened e-markets in Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain.

For the first ninety days of publication, the new editions will be trying their wings on Amazon Prime.  This will permit distribution of free review copies and will also allow Prime members to borrow the books free, one at a time, for up to a month.  Authors get $1.74 each time a book is borrowed, so Amazon is sharing at least a portion of the $79 annual fee for Prime memberships.

The original Poems from the Road, Travels with Willa Cather, will soon be re-issued electronically as well.  I look forward to seeing its spiffy new cover, with the photograph of the bridge at Avignon, France, take its place beside the old, rather dated one for Red Cloud to Cross Creek.  Each has its place.
 
 
thus proving that Amazon can rise above  and let something critical of its behemoth machinery and its price-gouging nature  go live.

That's what it's called when something resembling a book has the breath of life bestowed upon it in cyberspace.  "Going live" is not for the faint of heart. 

Thanks to a November  stand-off with Amazon, A Christmas Kindle was dead on arrival, something about trademark names being verboten.  Thus came a more generic approach - enter the Kobo and the Nook - two of Amazon's fiercest rivals.  And I'm as surprised as anyone to be singing a new song about Amazon.

The human touch always saves the day - someone caring enough to read the alarming manuscript and find out that it's not alarming at all to promote a pubic awareness of what we can expect of ourselves as a nation of e-readers.  Still grappling with issues of access and quality, I'm voting to give Amazon another chance.  Call it a 90-day experiment in greed.
 
 
Hmmm . . . I have to admit to not knowing the answer to that, at this point in time.  I can say, with some certainty, that they may not be as smart as they think, while trying to control and dominate as much of the e-book market as they can.

While maintaining hope that amazon.com is still a "they" and not an "it," I can only say that I am wary.  They have shown extreme greed, this week, to this fledgling house of books, to the extent that they have lost any possibility that I will sell out to their "Prime Select" nonsense.

Sitting on top of Old Glassy near the farm he called Connemara, Carl Sandburg told Edward R. Murrow in a 1950s-era interview:  "The most odious word in the English language is EXCLUSIVE."

I once eschewed gated communities for their claims of "exclusivity" until I spent time in one and realized how lovely is the illusion of safety.  When it comes to exclusivity in publishing, however, I doubt that there is any comfort in Amazon's system of locks.  I suspect that what it will do is limit the liberty of writers, even while claiming to help us.

Some day I will tell you how I learned to mistrust Amazon, all in one 24-hour period.