A Night at the Caucus



A caucus-goer in training

A caucus-goer in training

For those of you unlucky enough to live outside of Iowa, I thought I’d share my experience of the 2016 Iowa Democratic Caucus.

To set the stage, imagine the gym of a local middle school, with royal blue bleachers … nowhere near enough seating for 420 voters (a record 62% of registered democrats in the precinct), plus assorted children, out-of-town observers, and photographers.  The crowd was mostly white, a mix of ages, and included an impressive number of first time caucus goers (indicated by show of hands).

I managed to squeeze into a bleacher seat with a dozen or so of my neighbors … all of us checking to see which of our friends were caucusing for whom.

The gym had no sound system, so the chairman of the caucus had to shout over the noise.  His first task was to count the actual voters, to confirm that voters in the gym matched the voters shown on the sign-in sheets. To accomplish this mundane task, the official “counter” walked back and forth along the bleachers and back and forth through the folks standing around the sides of the gym.  He asked the first person to call out “#1”.  Thereafter, each person he pointed to had to shout out the next number in sequence, until he got to the last person and also got to 420.

Amazingly, they got it right on the first try (Iowa’s been doing caucuses for a very long time) and announced that “viability” (at least 15% of the voters in the gym) was 63.

The Undecided's

The Undecided’s

For the next few minutes, we listened to a representative of each candidate extol the candidate’s virtues, after which we all clambered down from the bleachers and moved to our candidate’s “wall,” where we arranged ourselves in parallel lines of ten.  It reminded me of lining up for the bathroom in grade school.  With three walls and three candidates, that left the “undecided” huddling on the midline of the basketball court.

Again, the count was done by having precinct workers for each candidate walk back and forth through the lines of voters, counting them one by one.  When the count was completed, Clinton was ahead of Sanders, I think by 8 points.  O’Malley, at 32, was out of the race.  So were the undecided, all 13 of them.

The best part of the caucus was yet to come — the 30 minutes allowed to “persuade” friends, neighbors, and strangers to come over to your team.  Could you persuade O’Malley supporters and the undecided to join with Hillary or Bernie?  Good humored pandemonium reigned, with informed discussion of policies interspersed with promises to do neighborly favors like shoveling your driveway in the next snow storm (today).

IMG_2615Blessedly, we didn’t all have to return to our parallel lines.  This time the counters matched up those still undecided, those still sticking by O’Malley, and those who switched to Hillary or Bernie.  If you followed the math, there were 45 votes in play.  When the count was done, Hillary was still ahead, but this time by only 4 points.  For those of you who don’t do math, that was less a hair under 1% of the voters in gym.

We were only one caucus out of 1,681, but our paperthin margin reflected the ambivalence of Iowa.

If Iowa still has the first-in-the-nation caucus for the 2020 election, you should come to watch democracy at work. There aren’t many other places to see it in action these days.

My next blog, of course, will be back on matters of health and bioethics.

Travel Tales


To my readers:

A grey kangaroo and her joey

A grey kangaroo and her joey

You may have noticed my absence in the last few weeks.

I had intended to maintain my regular weekly blog during my travels in Australia and New Zealand, but between the time zone difference and constant movement from place to place, the time available for writing seems to be in short supply.  It seems I have no choice but to take a break, probably until I return in mid-March.

If you want check up on my travels, click here for my Facebook page.

The "Twelve Apostles"

The “Twelve Apostles”

In the meantime, here are a few choice photos from our trip along the Great Ocean Road, a journey that rivals the Pacific Coast Highway in the U.S.

I will post others from time to time.




Rainforest near Cape Otway

Rainforest near Cape Otway

The Beach At Lorne

The Beach At Lorne


A Christmas Tale


As a special treat, I am reprinting a recent blog by my Irish friend David Lawlor, who offers an historian’s perspective on the Christmas tradition.


Santa—the Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly

                  He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,                                                           And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.                                                     A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,                                                                   And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.        
His eyes—how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!                                     His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!                        His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,                             And the beard of his chin was white as the snow.

(A Visit From St Nicholas)

Ah yes, we’re gearing up for that time when children all over the world await the arrival of the big man with the beard and the red suit – and that’s all that need be said to know of whom we speak. All I have to do is recall the movie Miracle on 34th Street and a warm fuzzy glow warms my tummy. However, it’s worth noting that a few steps had to be taken in Santa’s evolution before we reached that point.

In Germany, St Nicholas actually comes on the night of December 5-6 when little boots are filled with all manner of goodies and left beside children’s beds. We follow this tradition in our own house as my son was born on December 6 and his mum is German. So far, thankfully, our four young ones have not interrogated us too severely as to why other children in the neighbourhood miss out on this early visit from St Nick.

Of course the real St Nicholas would probably scratch his head in puzzlement at the whole Santa tradition. I refer, of course, to St Nicholas of Myra. Born in Petara (in modern Turkey), he had a habit of putting coins in people’s shoes as a gift and it’s from this practice that Father Christmas originated. St Nick is also the patron saint of pawnbrokers (some say bankers, too), which takes a bit of the gloss off his story, but we can’t blame him for that.

The book One Night Stands with American History claims that it was 17th century Dutch settlers who brought Father Christmas to America. Based on the Dutch winter figure of Sinterklaas, he was  “tall, slender and very dignified” and without even a bristle to be found on his chin.

Incidentally, the Dutch Sinterklaas is said to be accompanied by his servant Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) carrying a big bag of goodies for all the boys and girls. Some songs suggest that the bag is also useful or bundling naughty children into and hauling them away.

220px-MerryOldSantaLittle did he know it, but Santa was in for a major makeover. Cartoonist Thomas Nast set the ball rolling when he added the beard and the rotund figure in the pages of Harper’s Weekly towards the end of the 19th century.

The story goes that Santa got his popular colour combination due to an advertising campaign for Coca Cola. It’s certainly true that the company helped popularise Santa amongst the general public. In 1931 Coca Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — they were so successful they ran right up to 1964.

For inspiration, Sundblom read Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas in which Moore describes Father Christmas as being warm, friendly and pleasantly plump. However, Santa appeared in a red coat long before Sundblom put brush to canvas.

Washington Irving (1783-1859), author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, wrote a Christmas story about giving and generosity in which he described Santa as a large man in a red suit smoking a pipe.

Jolly old Santa is now so popular that in America 20,000 rent-a-Santa’s are trained every year to maintain that happy demeanour (no matter what the provocation). They are also given such practical tips as to avoid eating garlic and, er, beans prior to visiting their young clients – the last thing one would want would be for Santa to leave more than one present behind…

But there was a darker side to St Nick. Early illustrations depict him as a bit of a tough cookie. He seen as stern, commanding, and bearing a birch rod, with which he would punish naughty children. This description ties in with that of the Viking god Odin, who is somewhat of a precursor to the modern Santa. According to myth, Odin rode his eight-legged flying horse, Sleipnir in winter and gave out both gifts and punishments. Children would fill boots or stockings with treats for Sleipnir to feast on.

Neither of the above are very appealing forms of Santa (although I do have a soft spot for Billy Bob Thornton as the leering, booze-fuelled armed robber Father Christmas in the movie Bad Santa, which is absolutely hilarious).

If the notion of a bad, vengeful Father Christmas dishing out punishment to unsuspecting children is a little disconcerting then you’d better brace yourself…

krampusIn parts of Austria, Germany, Hungary, and some neighboring countries, a hairy, evil beast called Krampus replete with horns, hooves, a long tongue, and sharp claws is said to terrify children at Christmas. Since the 17th century he has accompanied Santa on his annual gift-giving trip.

Naughty boys and girls beware – Krampus’s job is to dish out punishment to them. He carries a large wicker basket on his back and kidnaps misbehaving children and brings them to Hell.

Never have the lines: ‘You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why’ been more apt.

Give me Billy Bob’s Santa any day. Happy Christmas.


I wish you all the best of this holiday season.

See you again in January.

Living in Free Fall


Free Fall A recurrent theme in my life is that you grow the most when you step outside your comfort zone. It is a heady feeling to realize that a painful experience that had you in free fall for a time has made you stronger and wiser … to realize that, using Bradbury’s metaphor, you have indeed grown new wings.

What’s easy to forget, once those new wings have grown and set, is just how rough it is when you are in free fall … when you don’t know where you’re trying to get to … when you don’t trust your own judgment … when you have no idea quite what to do next.

It’s all the harder when you are in free fall off a cliff you didn’t even see coming.

To put this in perspective, I will take you back to 2008. Depending on how you count, I had changed careers half a dozen times over the previous 38 years, including several times when I dropped off the corporate ladder for a period of years. Some transitions were harder than others, some more successful than others, but there seemed to be a consistent pattern, one in which my skills in one arena provided a temporary branch to hang on to while I grew new wings in another.

When I decided to give up finance to be a creative writer, I expected this transition would go smoothly. After all, I was an experienced business writer. I’d taken university-level courses on creative writing. I’d published a memoir about sailing around the world at age 40.

Friday, I was a financial consultant.  Monday, I would be a writer.  How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, as it turned out.

What I overlooked, as I launched myself into the writerly world, was the common thread that stitched my earlier transitions into a satisfying quilt … the opportunity to work with smart people who were big thinkers. My success lay, to a very large extent, in my ability to carry out complex projects that these big thinkers—whether mentor, client or husband—believed were important.

In 2008, however, there was no client or mentor or husband. I had lots of ideas, but no way to set priorities or assess whether they were worth pursuing.

And then, one morning, as I waited for the first edition of Sailing Down the Moonbeam to be delivered, I recalled one of those wing-growing experiences as we sailed across the Pacific Ocean. Most of the time, my husband and I were vulnerable to unpredictable winds and currents. Setting goals was an exercise in frustration, since we could not control our progress on any given day. The best we could do was set a course that took us in the right general direction. All too often, we revised our course several times. More than once, we had to change our destination.

The metaphor seemed obvious.  If I wanted to I be a writer, I needed to write and hope my words would cumulate to a writer’s persona. Write something. A blog. A book review.  An essay.  Anything. Now, today.

It was a eureka moment.

I’d like to be able to tell you that I grew my writer’s wings that day.  I didn’t. Those simple goals got me out of bed every morning, but it was months before I did so with any enthusiasm.  It was several long and painful months before my wings started to grow.

Now, six years later, I have a writer’s wings. A novel and a memoir. A regular blog. A steady stream of freelance work. Invitations to speak to book clubs, libraries and community groups.

But once again, I seem to be in free fall. How can I be a writer if I don’t have a meaningful story I feel compelled to tell, or an idea I feel compelled to write about? Having just turned 70, I’m intrigued by the personal and societal challenges as the boomer cohort ages.  But how much of my thinking is unique enough to be worth writing about?

Once again, I seem to be grasping frantically for a branch to retard my free fall … give me a few extra moments to develop the wings I’ll need for my next act?  But what’s that next act? A writer in her 70’s with temporary writer’s block. Or a humanist for whom aging IS the next act, whether you write about it or not? Or maybe something else I haven’t even thought about?

What do you think? Can we still sprout wings at 70??