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Category Archives: Personal

Five Sentence Fiction #3: Florida

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Five Sentence Fiction #3. This week’s prompt is Vacation.



For over 20 years I spent one week a year with my mother in Florida, and every day I took a long delicious walk along the Atlantic Ocean. In the evenings she took me out for expensive dinners. Even so, every  morning I’d awaken filled with a sick, sinking feeling inside, except on the day I was going back home. At my mother’s funeral I thought, I never have to come here again, and I haven’t.

Sometimes I miss the ocean.

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Legacy II: Elvis, LBJ, and My Father

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Elvis Presley

Cover of Elvis Presley

The night Elvis was introduced to America via The Ed Sullivan Show, my mother, a Frank Sinatra worshipper, was amused: sitting on the red loveseat in the living room, knitting as usual, her mouth twitched at the corners as she tried to hold back a smile of…in hindsight I’d say it was ridicule. My older sister alternately screamed and swooned, down on the floor where she always sat in a weird double-jointed position I couldn’t get myself into no matter how hard I tried. Ten years old, I watched Elvis gyrate on the tube, confused by my mixed-up responses, at least partially hormonal. And my father? He was the only one in the family who knew exactly what he thought of this person.

Arggh!” he half growled, half shouted, waving a muscular arm at the television in disgust and dismissal. “Write this jerk’s name down on a piece of paper, and ten years from now take a look at it. You won’t even remember who he is!”

Toby Sheiner (Dad)

Toby Sheiner (Dad)


This, of course, became one of my family’s most famous stories, a favorite of my sister’s and mine. My poor father’s been dead and buried since January 1980, and we still tell the tale, to which most people respond with, “Wow, he sure picked the wrong guy to say that about!” After all, he could’ve said it about a million other singers who offended him: say, Carl Perkins. Carl Perkins, you know…Aarggh, forget it!

I was reminded of my father’s hapless prediction this morning during a news story about Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy; it brought to mind another prediction of my father’s—except this one was right. LBJ went



down in history as a presidential failure for continuing, even escalating, the war in Vietnam. Not to mention his path to the presidency; anyone alive at the time still recalls the image of Johnson with his hand raised to take the presidential oath on Air Force One, Jackie Kennedy in a pink blood-stained suit at his side. I was old enough to remember, yet young enough to equate this image with one of a murderer: for a long time I believed Johnson was central in a conspiracy of assassination. (While I still believe JFK’s assassination was a conspiracy, I’ve ruled out Johnson as the hit-man-in-chief.) In any case, what was overshadowed by Johnson’s unfortunate path to power and missteps with the war was his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and all the other socially progressive legislation of his administration: Medicare, The War on Poverty, food stamps…the social safety net that lies torn and tattered even as I write about it. My father talked about all this on the day that LBJ declared he would not make a run for another term. Then and there my father predicted that “Someday they’ll realize Johnson was one of our greatest presidents.”

Does my father’s clarity regarding LBJ cancel out his inaccurate assessment of Elvis, or even tip the scales a little in his favor? I hate to say it, but I think not. He was so monumentally wrong to think Elvis was a passing trend that his intellectual legacy suffered greatly, no matter how smart he might’ve been with regard to presidential politics. Still…I’ll raise a glass and toast dear old dad later on today, and while I’m at it give Lyndon Johnson his due—belated, but long deserved. Will I include Elvis in my toast? Always.


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An Open Letter to Senator Barbara Boxer

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Boxer speaks at an event.

Boxer speaks at an event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have just sent the following email to Senator Barbara Boxer:

Dear Senator Boxer:

I recently listened, via podcast, to your speech at the Commonwealth Club. I agree with and am grateful for your point of view on what’s happening in our country, and your policy ideas for repairing some of it, like raising the minimum wage for everyone and addressing climate change on a tangible level. However, I’m sorry to say that some of your perspective is myopic and limited.

When you say those who “play by the rules” ought to reap the rewards of the “American Dream” you…discount me and every other artist in this country. I am a writer, and I’m speaking as well for painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, and everyone else who commits themselves to bring truth and beauty into the world. We are consistently told we do not “play by the rules” because we don’t buckle down and go to work for some corporation or other. Similarly, when you say those who “work hard,” you omit the disabled population who cannot “work hard” at most of the jobs available in our culture. When you say government must step in when “the middle class is in trouble” you omit the poorest of the poor.

In fact, Senator, by your choice of language you are dismissing everybody whose personality or disposition doesn’t fit into the capitalist mold. Some of us just can’t make it in the usual 9-5 routine—and we pay for it, believe me, we pay for it.

I am the mother of a disabled son who is now nearly 50. Between raising him myself (and a daughter) through brain surgeries and seizures, while still trying to write (not to mention being one of, as Erica Jong calls us, the “whiplash generation” of women who had the game switched on us midway), I have had a checkered work history that’s left me with a paltry amount of Social Security and nothing else to support me now that I’m 68 and getting older every day. My son is poor, I am poor, and I’m told it is my fault for not playing by the rules. You should know, however, that I have worked extremely hard in my life by necessity, and it continues. Compared to my still-married friends who’ve retired to Florida or Costa Rica, my life in East Oakland is deprived. I am not complaining: I’m glad I didn’t spend my entire life in some office (as it is I had to spend too much time in them). But I do want you to know that I and millions of us who don’t fit the American Dream mold deserve a decent life just as much as the middle class corporate workers, who I readily admit have also struggled without reward or justice because of what’s become of this country.

Despite my criticism of your language and what it might reflect, I still thank you for holding down the liberal fort in Congress.

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Black Panther Free After 44 Years

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The Hour of Sunlight in Prison by Erik Reuland

The Hour of Sunlight in Prison by Erik Reuland

Marshall Eddie Conway isn’t the first Black Panther to be released after decades in prison, only the most recent, and every time a political prisoner goes free it’s cause for celebration. I’m celebrating by searching for a correspondence program, or a “pen pal” as we called them in grade school, to write to. I’m doing this because when Conway was asked how he got through 44 years in jail he didn’t say “Allah,” or “Jahweh” or reading the Christian Bible or the Koran or Torah; he said it was the love and support of people on the outside that gave him the hope he needed to get through.


At 68 Conway is one of the most mentally stable ex-prisoners I’ve ever seen and heard. He didn’t just “get through” those 44 years, either: he continued doing political activism, initiating a program of older prisoners mentoring young ones as they entered the prison, and somehow extending youth programs to outside communities. He’s been out less than 24 hours (how does Amy Goodman get these people on her show?!), and I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more of Conway’s activities as time goes by.

Unlike some of DN’s prison stories, especially those about solitary confinement, I was able to watch this one without freaking out. It was when Conway said people on the outside had helped him that it occurred to me to write to a political prisoner. I’ve been beside myself about the growing prison industrial complex, but I’m averse to doing political work that involves meetings and listening to people spout rhetoric, no matter whose side they’re on. And my emotional reactions to jails and solitary send me running from that particular area of human torture. As we all know, however, I can sit home and scribble. I won’t play the same role in someone’s life as Eddie’s friends and family played in his—they helped get him out—but maybe I can engage someone’s mind for a few minutes a week.


In the course of researching pen pal programs, I was inspired by an article written by someone who corresponds with political prisoners herself. Molly Fair says, in part:

The powers that be lock people in cages, feed them nasty food, deny them medical attention and education, surveil every aspect of their life and communications with the outside world, deprive them of fresh air and sunlight, deem them criminals (often based solely on the color of their skin, nationality, and/or class background) and profit from this system which is incredibly inhumane to all involved.  

I encourage everyone to see the interview with Marshall Eddie Conway on DN. From Goodman’s introduction:

Supporters describe Conway as one of the country’s longest-held political prisoners. He was convicted of killing a Baltimore police officer in 1970, for which he has always maintained his innocence. The shooting occurred at a time when federal and local authorities were infiltrating and disrupting the Black Panthers and other activist groups…the FBI was also monitoring Conway’s actions as part of its counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO

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Journalism: A Noble Profession

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...

Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is unfortunately true that when most people hear the word journalism they automatically envision reporters descending on tragic scenes shouting ghoulish questions. “How’d you feel when you saw your son’s dead body?” Or they blame the ruthless papparazzi for Princess Diana’s death, losing sight of journalism’s many heroic professionals: Woodward and Bernstein, Walter Cronkite, and, more recently,  Amy Goodman (Democracy Now), and Jeremy Scahill (Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Jeremy_ScahillPowerful Mercenary Army).

Without the courage of investigative reporters, Richard Nixon might have served out his full term, and our nation most likely would have witnessed an entirely different history. Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers in 1971 to The New York Times. They revealed that the government knew early on that the Viet Nam war could probably not be won, that continuing it would lead to more casualties than publicly admitted, and that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied to the public and to Congress.

My point is that journalists go after the truth and shout it out to We the People. We need them: we cannot rely on governments to tell us the truth. Sure, some media deliver a hefty dose of propaganda with their reportage, or even tell outright lies; still, not all are dishonest. Without reporters we would know a lot less than we do, and those in power would get away with even more than they already do.

thI don’t presume to put myself in the same category as Woodward and Bernstein, but I’ve done my share of newspaper work and learned a thing or two in the process. For several years I was Assistant Editor at the Woodstock Times, a weekly paper in upstate New York. While it was a great opportunity for me to learn the news biz, especially how to cover topics I cared about, I also covered local news, some of which nobody else would do—like the town’s new sewer system, or the ambulance bought with donations.

During one of those assignments that seemed, to all outward appearances, a boring write-by-rote, I was happily surprised by a hit of that rarefied air breathed by reporting’s upper echelon.  Unlikely as it seems, it was at a meeting of county agencies starting up a day care program that I grokked the full nobility of my profession.

As at most of these kinds of gatherings, the movers and shakers sat on fabric-covered chairs behind a long desk facing an audience of citizens and reporters, the latter relegated to ice-cold metal chairs placed around the fringes of the room. I sat with my legs crossed, notepad on my knee, head down, scribbling half shorthand, half my own unique symbols, hair falling in my face. Suddenly an extraordinary physical sensation came over me: my body felt like a conduit into which words were poured, processed and translated into ideas of supreme importance. My hand followed a kinesthetic route taking notes that would eventually be typeset onto newspaper and distributed to thousands of readers. I was nothing more and nothing less than a channel through which information was transmitted. Hardly a top-rate job description and verging on  corniness I know—yet it gave me a sense of wild exaltatation. With hindsight I’ve come to regard that moment as one of being well-used: I was performing a necessary task, contributing to the community in which I lived. Go ahead, laugh—but I felt close to heroic.

Now that my moment of heroism is on record, I’ll confess that I seldom was. One day I answered the office phone to an anonymous caller reporting on a cross-burning in front of a house purchased by a mixed-race couple about 15 miles away in Phoenecia. I immediately started calling around for more information. In my young naivete—I was barely 30—I questioned cops, realtors, and shopkeepers as casually as I might ask what they thought of the new ambulance.

Late that night I got a call at home. A woman’s voice commanded, “I want it stopped!” No hello, no self-identification.

“Who is this?” I burning cross

“Never mind that. I’m doing you a favor. If you persist with what you’re doing, you will be watched. Consider this a friendly warning. The next one won’t be so friendly.”

“What is this?” I actually laughed. “The Lou Grant Show?”

“This is real life, honey, not television. It’s not one of your hippie games either.” Before hanging up on me she repeated, “Believe me, I’m doing you a favor.”

I hung up and sat by the phone, dazed. I supposed these things happened, but nothing like it had ever happened to me, so it did seem like a television show.

For the next few days I went about my life, the call never far from my thoughts. I didn’t investigate the story any further. It is one of the things I regret having done, or not done, in my life. It’s true I was in no way prepared to cover such a dangerous story—I was learning the news business “on the job”—but I wish I’d asked the publisher or another reporter to help me; we might’ve done it together. To my credit, I did tell both the publisher and a reporter about it, but the former only cracked a few jokes and promptly forgot it, and the reporter, full of righteous indignation, swore she’d ship off her daughter to stay with grandparents while she charged into the fray. She too promptly forgot about it.

I did not. To this day I frequently think about that cross and my inaction. The incident looms large in the narrative of my life. Not only do I regret dropping the ball for the moral lapse it represents, but I sometimes wonder, had I followed the story and exposed the Klan, would my career have benefitted? Who knows: I might’ve won a Pulitzer! Or been hailed far and wide for my bravery! Offered a job with the New York Times! It’s not that far-fetched; such things happen every day, so why not to me?  Because I wimped out, that’s why. Out of fear I did nothing, and I never heard another word about the local Klan, the cross-burning, or the couple who’d been their target. A few years later I did testify at county hearings looking into the Klan’s activities, but nothing came of that either.

I do not lightly set this down here for the world to read. Why, I asked myself, should I publicly announce that when the shit hit the fan I turned tail and ran? I failed to live up to my principles. I decided, however, not to chicken out this time, though I can’t imagine anything will be gained here. Maybe I just wanted to say that I still believe in the nobility of journalism. Despite some of the terrible things done in its name, newspaper and online reporting is one of the few real sources of People Power, a rare avenue of Truth. Don’t give up on journalists.

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