The Very Rich Man Who Was a Patriot

(Cleaning up miscellaneous files today and came upon this, which I wrote early last year but never published, for reasons I no longer remember. Self-indulgent, definitely, but just a tiny bit comforting, too, in the way that pure fantasy can sometimes be.)

Once upon a time, in a faraway place (or maybe not so faraway), there was a very rich man. This very rich man owned many properties and made many deals all over the world, and came to believe that his vast wealth and properties proved he was more clever than other people.

So the very rich man decided to run for President. He made many speeches to very large crowds of people who admired his wealth, and many who even thought he was almost as clever as he believed himself to be. Eventually, even though more people preferred other candidates, the very rich man was elected President.

And so it came to pass that the very rich man, now President, was visited by several government officials with a report on how a foreign nation had influenced the country’s news media and voters, and had perhaps even manipulated the very rich man’s own campaign.

The very rich man was shocked to his core. At first, he resisted believing what he had been told. But as he read and reread the report all night, and considered the evidence it presented, he realized its conclusions were incontrovertible.

In the morning, the very rich man called a press conference to discuss what he had learned. “I have been an abject fool,” he said. “I convinced myself that I knew more than everyone else, that my own arrogant conception of common sense outweighed any facts, any knowledge, any expertise other than my own.

“But my own hubris is not the only problem now burdening our nation. We are also faced with the fact that my Vice President and several members of our Congressional leadership were completely aware of the foreign intervention and chose to ignore it in order to preserve their own positions of power.

“I am releasing a report to to Congress and to the public, naming these self-serving officials, and urge the Congress to move with the utmost dispatch to impeach and remove them from our government. Once this is accomplished, I myself will resign as President.”

Encouraged by a deluge of calls and letters and emails from citizens, Congress acted quickly. After half a dozen separate impeachment hearings, the House chose a new Speaker, a long-serving, well-respected, experienced Member of Congress; the Senate likewise replaced its Majority Leader.

The very rich man then kept his promise and resigned. He was replaced by the newly elected Speaker, who was herself replaced by another well-respected and experienced Member of Congress. Inspired by the newfound integrity and patriotism of the former President, the Congress proceeded to pass a Constitutional Amendment to eliminate the electoral college in favor of a popular vote for President, to strengthen voting rights nationwide, to enact comprehensive immigration reform, effective gun control, and single-payer health coverage, and to make significant progress dealing with climate change.

And everyone lived happily ever after.

(I told you it was a fairy tale. But it made a nice break from calling my Senators and Representative.)


What kind of country are we?

This segment that Ari Melber ran last night on The Last Word belongs with those I noted last summer in my “Indelible” post. It’s yet another voice with the potential to change the conversation:

What we do is who we are. What kind of country will we choose to be?

Anniversary of a (Mostly) Past Life

Today’s date almost slipped by me, even though it had occurred to me a few months ago that it was coming up. Twenty years ago today—June 8, 1997— was when I officially became a Famous Homeschool Author™*.

It was very nearly an accident. We were a homeschooling family, of the secular if-we’re-going-to-spend-most-of-our-time-reading-we-mght-as-well-be-comfortable school of thought. (Seriously, the best way to understand the attitude with which we approached learning is to go watch Carl Reiner’s new HBO documentary, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. Those over-90s totally get it.) I was active with a statewide homeschool organization, and one day got a call from an editor at a local publisher (then the “5th largest independent publisher in the United States”) who was interested in developing curriculum packages to sell to homeschoolers. I sent them a bunch of articles, magazines, and other info, got taken to lunch, had my brain picked, and was eventually asked to give feedback on a truly awful proposal they came up with. (I tell the complete story in the introduction to Viral Learning.) That was the end of that, I thought.

But a few weeks later, I got a call from a different editor at the same company, who told me she thought there was a market for a trade book about homeschooling and invited me to submit a proposal. Soon, I had signed a contract to write at least 70,000 words about homeschooling over the next 18 months, which seemed an incredibly generous amount of time. It turned out to be far more time than I’d needed, because—inevitably—i procrastinated so much that I ended up writing the bulk of the book in the last two months before my deadline.

Then came the fun of learning how the publishing world worked. I was asked for title suggestions, most of which were completely ignored, because the publisher was more concerned with appealing to book store buyers than the eventual retail purchasers. (After all, if the books aren’t in the stores, either physical or online, nobody gets the chance to buy them.)

There were multiple, seemingly endless opportunities to read my book—over and over and over—copyediting run, making the index (which I did myself because I was too much a cheapskate to pay $400 for someone to do it for me), proofing run, final proofing run.

And somewhere in among the rereads, the publisher sent me the proposed cover, which I detested from the moment I saw it. I hated its homespun faux-denim look with the red scalloped line that looked like a badly tensioned line of machine embroidery. I hated the run-on multi-part title/subtitle/sub-subtitle. Most of all, I hated that damn pencil, irritatingly bearing that smarmy SUCCESS, which seemed to me to symbolize every homeschooling stereotype my homeschooling friends and I had been fighting for years. I suggested a few changes. (My friend Kim Stuffelbeam even mocked up a lovely red cover for it, which I passed on to the publisher, who said thanks, but no thanks. They really liked the faux denim.)

I did win the fight over the back cover copy, persuading the publisher that the original “THE ONLY HOMESCHOOLING BOOK YOU’LL EVER NEED!” would alienate more potential purchasers than it would attract. I decided I could live with “Don’t Even Think About Teaching Your Child at Home—Until You Read This Book.”

Eventually a carton full of books showed up, most of which I signed and sent to all my contributors who’d filled out an obnoxiously long questionnaire for me. June 8 rolled around, the book was officially published, and I was a Famous Homeschool Author™, learning to form coherent sentences on the fly for radio interviews and obsessing over the book’s Amazon ranking. Somewhat to the publisher’s surprise, the first printing sold out within two weeks, and they went back to press, and then asked me, “What’s next?”

So for 1998, I wrote another one, The Unschooling Handbook, which I liked much better. By then, the publisher had decided that my advice about reaching my part of the homeschooling market wasn’t completely baseless, so I ended up with a cover I liked much better, too. The new book sold well enough that the publisher decided not only that we needed a new updated version of my first book, for which I wrote about 40% new material, but that it would be the first of a whole series of homeschooling titles in uniform, identifiable covers. The Homeschooling Handbook, Revised 2nd Edition, came out in 1999, with a cover that was less interesting than that of The Unschooling Handbook, but at least had an illustration of a kid with a book and a magnifying glass, looking at a ladybug, which reminded me a bit of one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons.

My publisher was a bit shocked, I think, that I wasn’t at all interested in writing any of the titles for the new series, but after three years of writing about homeschooling (and talking about it at conferences and in interviews), I’d said what I’d had to say about the subject, and had no interest in rehashing it into further titles. After my younger daughter started college, I sent out another of my long and obnoxious questionnaires to as many of my previous contributors as I still had contact info for, and in 2007 came out with my self-published Viral Learning: Reflections on the Homeschooling Life, a collection of linked essays, plus an appendix full of the questionnaire responses. But that book was just for me, and for the contributors, not a real part of my Famous Homeschool Author™ collection.

The HH and UH, as I think of them these days, are still in print and still selling. My little “5th largest” publisher was acquired by Random House, so my books are now published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Crown Books Group, a division of Penguin Random, owned by AG Bertelsmann. (My contacts and communications with my publishing conglomerate these days are entirely electronic and non-human.) Both books are in their 14th or 15th editions, at least the last time I saw copies in a book store. with cumulative sales now approaching 95,000 copies. (To put that number in perspective, back when I still knew humans at Crown, they declined my fencing book proposal with a kind “We think it would be a great book, but we’re not interested unless it will sell 100,000 copies in the first year.”) My little backlist homeschooling titles have been only enough to keep me in new glasses and occasional computer and phone upgrades over the past two decades.

But backlist titles still earning royalties after 20 years is still kind of amazing.

*”Famous Homeschool Author™” is the term coined in sarcasm by my then 12-year-old older daughter to keep me in my place. The whole family (including me) has used it off and on ever since, invariably ironically.

A Necessary Missive

Wrote a letter to the USFA board today:

Dear USFA Board Members and Staff,

I was disappointed and disheartened to see or hear no public statement from USFA after the recent reports of at least two of our members having been singled out for unusual attention going through U.S. Customs when returning from fencing-related international travel. Perhaps, I thought, there was a statement being worked on, to be posted to the USFA website. Or, failing that, maybe there would be a formal motion or resolution to come out of the February meeting of the Board of Directors.

When the agenda for that meeting was posted today, I therefore read through it in search of such a resolution or proposal, and the only item I could find even plausibly related to this issue is Mr. Alperstein’s motion in the Good & Welfare portion of the agenda:

“RESOLVED: USA Fencing remains committed to the principles of diversity, inclusion and openness, and reaffirms that it welcomes and embraces members and participants without regard to ethnicity, religion or national origin. In furtherance of these values, USA Fencing reiterates is commitment to pluralism and its opposition to any practices, policies, rules or laws that discriminate against or stigmatize individuals or groups, that mark them for special treatment, or that deny them the full enjoyment of liberty, opportunity and equality on the basis of superficial or pretextual criteria.”

This statement is, to be blunt, a “Miss America contestant” statement—one that uses a lot of pretty words to say virtually nothing. Is it intended as a statement of support for those USFA members and others who have experienced unusual attention when traveling internationally? How can we tell?

To fail to take a strong public stand against policies and procedures that have already affected at least two well-known USFA members and may yet affect others is to implicitly approve such actions. While I understand the desire to avoid making a public fuss, this is exactly the sort of situation which requires a public fuss. That two United States citizens could be pulled aside on what can only be interpreted as the basis of race, religion, or culture is chilling. That effect can only be more threatening to those of our members who are legal residents, but not yet citizens.

A significant number of the referees and other officials the USFA depends on to staff our domestic tournaments and serve as part of international team cadres are immigrants and permanent residents. Impingements on their freedom to travel on our behalf have the potential to discourage their service and hamper our operations. Were such incidents to continue or increase, we could also expect to see fewer international competitors and officials willing to travel to the United States, and might find our ability to win bids to host World Cups, Championships, and even the Olympic Games compromised.

Beyond any practical potential effects of these troubling incidents is the simple fact that what happened to Ibti and Abdel was simply wrong. Like that of the United States itself, the history of the United States Fencing Association is not free of policies and periods of which it now has reason to be ashamed. Do not allow these incidents to join that part of our history. Do not allow these incidents to pass without notice or protest.

I urge you to strengthen the language of this motion to make clear that it is meant to specifically address threats to our members’ ability to travel freely, and then to approve it and urge other sports NGBs, as well as the USOC, to take similar strong public stands. I also recommend that the USFA provide appropriate information about travel rights and contacts for legal representation to any and all who travel internationally on the USFA’s behalf.

Mary Griffith