Five Things: July 9, 2020

Slow news day, am I right? Nevertheless, here are five things for you today:

This just in: Trump not king. Which is to say the Supreme Court ruled against him today with regard to the release of his taxes to the State of New York, and didn’t rule for him with regard to having to answer congressional subpoenas. As I understand it everything is going back to lower courts to get hashed out, but the gist of it for me is that the Supreme Court has finally decided on some limits to executive power, and honestly, not a damn moment too soon for that. And while it’s unlikely that any of this tax information will be out before the election, it seems likely to me that it will be out eventually, and if it doesn’t show, shall we say, a certain amount of legerdemain and nefariousness, I will eat my hat (it will be a hat I specially make to be edible, but even so). Short version: Trump’s probably a criminal, probably in hock to foreign interests, and will go down as abjectly the worst American president since James Buchanan, and (depending on how the next few months go) possibly finally edging into a tie with that benighted soul. I look forward to all of that coming out.

Oh, and half of Oklahoma is Native American territory: I mean, that’s certainly a hell of a thing, isn’t it? Apparently the Supreme Court was all “oh, hey, the US has to actually honor a treaty,” which, you’ll forgive for saying so, is a thing I never ever expected any branch of the federal government to say out loud. Maybe I’m cynical. I honestly can’t pretend to understand all the implications of the ruling, since it wasn’t something I had ever thought about before it was ruled upon, but it certainly feels big, both for the ruling itself and what it means for future jurisprudence regarding Native Americans and their treaty lands. Someone with more expertise will need to tell me what it all means.

No mask, no venti latte: Starbucks will be requiring masks for service now, which a) they should have already been doing and b) I expect will be part of a wave of many business finally figuring out that if they’re going to stay open and not be infections pit (and thus be on the hook for liability), they have to tell people to wear masks, which are, after all, the literal least they can be doing so as not to infect other people. I personally won’t be going to Starbucks, since I don’t drink coffee, don’t like paying $5 for drinks, and even if I did the nearest Starbucks is like 11 miles away. But I do appreciate them actually doing more to keep Covid from being transmitted than the literal national government right now. Admittedly the bar is low.

No slurs for Scrabble: The North American Scrabble Players Association has banned the use of apparently 236 racial and -phobic slurs from official play, and Hasbro (which owns the game) is changing the official rules to note that slurs are not acceptable in “any form of the game.” I don’t have the list of now-banned slurs in front of me, but I am curious, outside some of the most obvious, what words are on the list and which are not. I strongly suspect some rules-lawyering bigots are going to be out there trying to get around the intent here. Because some people are just assholes (a word which, by the way, is apparently still allowed in play).

Here, have a hibiscus. They’re pretty. And I get a kick that they grow in my yard here in Ohio. They’re out of place but thriving, which is something I, a native Californian, can empathize with.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Catherine Asaro

Finally! An author brave enough to give an answer to The Question all writers get! The author: Catherine Asaro. Her newest book: The Vanished Seas. Her answer? Read on!


“Where do you get your ideas?”

The dreaded question. It’s also a good one, deserving a good answer. Unfortunately, I never have a good response. The best I can muster is, “I don’t know.” Ideas percolate in my brain like in an old-fashioned coffee maker, and I can’t say what happens before the coffee pours out, rich and fragrant.

So I imagined the Undercity, where part of The Vanished Seas takes place. The Undercity exists in the ancient ruins beneath the City of Cries. The wealthy citizens of Cries consider it a slum, a place sparsely populated by drug-dealers, the homeless, and the elusive Black Mark, an illegal casino that entices the Cries glitterati.

However, the Undercity is far different than outsiders imagine. Isolated for thousands of years, her people evolved their own civilization, an achingly beautiful culture, yet one that can also crush the soul, with poverty and grace existing side-by-side, light and darkness, the violence of life combined with exquisite arts.

Outsiders can never find the true Undercity. The extraordinary ruins where her people hide spread for many square kilometers under a desert called the Vanished Sea. Although some back and forth exists with the outside world, no one can enter who doesn’t belong. If outsiders venture into the ruins without an invitation, they’re lucky to make it out alive.

In some ways, the Undercity offers a darker version of the Camelot legends, with its tales of a shining place that no longer exists, having vanished into the mists of history. My intrigued readers wanted to know where those ideas came from. I’d never have found an answer if I hadn’t become involved in a seemingly unconnected and far more mundane task, helping to write the Wikipedia entry for my high school.

I attended John F. Kennedy High in Richmond, California not far from Berkeley and Oakland. People often describe JFK as inner-city and urban. I’ve never felt easy with those words. It’s true that the school lies within walking distance of downtown Richmond, with its attractive public library and county buildings, but mostly residential areas surround the school. Is that urban? Inner-city? What do those words even mean? I’d suggest they are a code that implies a primarily minority enrollment, lower income levels, and a higher crime rate.

JFK also once ranked among the top public high schools in California. In its earliest years, it offered a model of what an urban public school could become at its best. Harvard came to recruit. Athletes won scholarships. Graduates became state district attorneys, celebrated musicians, scientists, doctors, NPR correspondents, and authors. Richard Mitchell, the first Black student to rank among the top speakers in the National Forensics League, became City Planning Director for Richmond. Judy Tyrus rose to stardom in the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The lawyer Christopher Darden of OJ Simpson fame attended JFK. Salim Akil, a co-producer of the show Black Lightning, graduated from Kennedy.

Many considered JFK a model for successful integration, with a student body back then about half Black and half other races, primarily White, Hispanic, and Asian. The school also pursued an innovative approach to teaching, with flexible scheduling similar to a college. That isn’t to say JFK had no problems; violence, drugs, racial tensions, and crimes exacted their toll, and the price we paid for that toll also lives in my memories. Yet that went hand-in-hand with an enthusiastic young faculty and a vibrant student body.

But what makes Kennedy even more distinctive—what has spurred articles and an entire masters thesis on the school—is how over the course of forty years it went from being a flagship of the California public education system to one of the worst schools in the state.

The changes at Kennedy arose from a perfect storm of disasters, starting with the unintended consequences of the Serrano legal rulings for California education, followed by the ravages of Proposition 13, the loss of industry in Richmond, and shifts in district policies. The decline was gradual but inexorable. In recent years, JFK has rebounded, as the school district climbs out of a slump that lasted decades.

Knowles Adkisson at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism explores the reality of the school in his 2018 masters thesis titled Kennedy High School: Fall of an Educational Camelot. Many people refer to the early decades at JFK as the Camelot years, evoking the term used to describe the administration of President Kennedy, the school’s namesake, and also the song lyrics from the musical of the same name: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

Is it true that for one brief moment, an inner-city public school defied the stereotypes and shone like a star? I would argue the magic never left; it still exists, often unseen by the outside world. You may not find the true soul of the community if you don’t know the city; you risk your safety if you go looking in places where you don’t belong. But the beauty thrives.

Adkisson’s thesis traces the history of JFK—and it hurt to read those words. I remembered how we believed our generation stood witness to a new age of tolerance and equality. Together all of us, black, brown, and white, could solve the problems of the world and usher in a brighter future.

So yeah, we were naïve.

But we weren’t wrong. The push-back we’re seeing now in the country echoes a backlash against those dreams of past generations. It isn’t that society hasn’t made progress, but that the progress terrifies some. Yet change never stops. Attempts to turn back the clock ultimately fail.

Did I think about all this as I wrote The Vanished Seas? No. If not for the Wiki article, I wouldn’t have recalled it at all. The Undercity is an original creation, a fantastical place immersed in science fiction.

And yet…

I see my childhood interwoven with that world. I didn’t grow up in poverty; I came from a middle class family. Many of us at the school did, despite the implications of words like inner-city. Even so, I lived a markedly different youth compared to that enjoyed by the kids I met at UCLA, students from places like Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades. When I went to Harvard for graduate school, I felt the weight of its traditions. I loved being a student at both schools, and I’m grateful for the doors that my degrees opened. But I felt a certain distance. It wasn’t only that in the late 1970s, I was often the only woman in my graduate physics and math classes. I also discovered my peers couldn’t relate to my background. Although I didn’t consciously stop talking about it, I realized as I put together this essay that it’s the first time I’ve written about my experiences at Kennedy.

I grieve the contrast of today’s world with the glowing idealism we carried as teens. But I also feel hope. Dreams like Camelot never truly vanish. They live within our communities, within every person who dares step outside the boundaries of their life to strive for a better world.

We’ll find our way to that shining place. I’ve always believed it, because I’ve seen how even our darkest hours can give birth to miracles.


The Vanished Seas: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter. Subscribe to her Patreon.

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