Educating for the future

The political conventions are done with, and now it’s all over but the shouting—and the vitriol, half-truths and incessant phone calls.

It’s time to get back to writing.

I’m in the midst of fashioning a novel about a teacher in the 25th century who is fed up with the over-regulation of the system and the indifference of the students she teaches. She decides to leave Earth (which has become a steel-encased mega-city) and take a position in one of the “outer colonies.”

Sound familiar? To anyone who has taught in the past twenty years, and anyone who is teaching now, it probably does.

Many of you are probably worried about the future of our planet, as I am. Possibly also the future of our species. Much of whether or not we survive, and thrive, as a species depends on education. It always did. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, education was a matter of which plants were poisonous and which were nutritious, how to avoid predators, which mate would ensure the survival of one’s offspring.

In other words, matters of individual and family survival.

Today, of course, education is far more complex. The human race has amassed a vast compendium of knowledge, and it is impossible to know everything. We can no longer limit the education of our young to the memorization of facts, dates and names. We have to train them to find the necessary information and teach them how to use it. Unfortunately, the standardized tests we employ today don’t allow for that. The emphasis on testing severely limits the creativity of the teacher, and the student.

Children must learn to analyze, synthesize and reach a defensible conclusion. They must also be free to imagine. It’s only from the imagination that new and better machines, techniques and ways of life can come. In defense of the genre of science fiction, it has been said that before engineers can design a technological breakthrough, someone has to think of it, and it has been science fiction writers to whom that task has fallen.

Today, we’re faced with a multitude of problems. Just finding a better machine is not enough. We need new and better ways to coexist without losing identity, to tolerate the ideas and lifestyles of others without giving up our own. And we must do this before we destroy the planet or each other. The ideas have to come from the younger generation.

I’m sixty-eight years old. In another twenty years, I’ll probably be gone. But the kids born now will just be coming into their prime. What will the world be like for them?

You see, no matter how complex or seemingly insurmountable the problems of education are, it’s still about survival.


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Come Together

Now that one of the political conventions is over, it’s time to take a half-time cleansing breath. How to evaluate this?

I would like to focus on Romney’s speech on Thursday night. There were no surprises. He stuck to the party line. But he did speak eloquently about parts of his life. His description of his parents’ marriage was lovely. He mentioned that his father left a rose on his mother’s bedside table every morning. It was obvious that they loved each other, and its influence on him was apparent. Yet he is perfectly willing to deny that relationship to others simply because they are of the same sex.

He promised to uphold the institution of marriage. I agree that the promise of two people to love and support each other for the rest of their lives is beautiful as well as socially important. It forms the nucleus of the family, a safe haven to which one can escape when things get too crazy out there. What I can’t agree with is the artificial differentiation between a union of two people of the opposite sex, and the joining of two people of the same sex.

Love is a rare phenomenon, and the willingness to commit to a lifetime  coming together even more so. If you truly believe in marriage, then you believe in it for everyone. No such blending of two lives can cheapen the concept.

Both Mr. Romney and his running mate reiterated their desire to make America great again. A laudable aspiration. I also want to see America resume its leadership role in the world. We have a lot to offer. But I don’t think we can hope to be great until we grow up and get rid of this adolescent tendency to gather in cliques and exclude anyone who is different. Whom one is attracted to is hardwired, as much a part of an individual as skin color or congenital disability. It’s as wrong to deny a person access to any institution on the basis of the latter as it is to force him into second-class citizenship because of the former.

Part of Mr. Romney’s speech recounted his childhood as a Mormon in Michigan. Although he pointedly told us that he didn’t feel like an outsider, because his friends were more concerned with that sports teams he followed, not the church he attended, I can’t accept that he didn’t feel some exclusion. As someone who grew up in that atmosphere, Mr. Romney must have some empathy for others who have been excluded.

I remain an optimist. I truly believe that we, as a nation and as a world, will come through this period of flux and transition to a brighter future. I won’t see it, but I can envision it. Now is the time to start shaping that future.

Now is the time to grow up.

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A Better Soapbox

So I was rereading C.S. Lewis, the Perelandra series (those who know my preference for science fiction aren’t surprised). It wasn’t my idea, but was urged on me by a friend. I was disappointed all over again.

Why? Because Lewis used his opportunity as a stage from which to proselytize. He chose to write an allegory, similar to those written in the seventeenth century.

Which begs the question, Do we, as writers, have a right to use our fiction to further our agenda?

I don’t see that it’s possible not to. Writers, as all human beings, have their biases and beliefs. Some are strongly held, others merely flirted with. But when we are composing our fiction, it is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore those feelings.

In my novel several ideas (I hope) come through. One is that we must overcome our homophobia and accept all people as worthy of respect. Another is that global climate change is real and will have disastrous results in the future.

The most important, though, is that we are all connected. Everybody has a responsibility to all people on the planet, as well as to the planet itself. Any talent that one person has should be used for the benefit of all of us.

If I wrote a tract, a blog, a non-fiction piece advocating those ideas, it might be read by a few. It might affect a handful more. My hope is that, in writing it as fiction, it will have a broader impact. When we write fiction, we create characters that our readers will connect with. As they sympathize with our creations, they identify with them, and take their problems to heart.

As such, we have a greater influence on people than others. Therefore, we have a responsibility to be aware of the ideas we put forth in our work. I don’t mean to be moralistic. It’s not that we have to stick to the straight and narrow. However, we do have to be honest, to examine the subtext of our stories. And our readers have a responsibility to parse that subtext to decide whether they agree with it. Not ignore it because it’s difficult or inconvenient.

Reader and writer are collaborators in the fiction business. We dream up the stories and present them, along with our biases and beliefs. The reader opens himself to our creation, enters the world we have imagined for him. Together, reader and writer construct a world that was intended by neither one. Because, whether we writers want it or not, the reader changes the stories we write and comes away with ideas and feelings we didn’t intend.

So, the question returns. I believe that writers have a right, and a responsibility, to advocate for the issues we believe in. We just have to make sure that we acknowledge the issues. We have to be conscious of those drives.

We have a better soapbox. We should use it.

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The Editing Flip-flop

There is a debate raging in one of the chats I follow. The question is, if you self-publish, do you need a professional editor?

My answer is a resounding, Yes.

When I was writing my novel, Whispers in the Night (notice I say my novel, because it’s my first and only), I didn’t have an editor. I had friends. My friends were very talented, all authors in their own right, members of the Coral Springs Writers Group. We met weekly and presented our pages to each other. Our submissions were carefully read by the others who searched out all the errors—the misspellings, dropped punctuation, repeated words. They also critiqued for lack of characterization, passages that didn’t move the plot, etc. They were great.

But they only saw a few pages at a time, and, I admit, I didn’t always show them the rewrites. Also, they didn’t see the work as a whole. This limited the effectiveness of their editing. I left Florida before I finished the work. Up north I was lucky to have my friend Jhena Plourde, who further edited the work in progress. And she was wonderful in picking up on the typos, inconsistencies and bloopers.

After the novel was published, I reread it. At that point I realized that what I needed was someone who would have grabbed me by the literary lapels and shaken me hard. “This part is crap,” the person could have said, “get rid of it or revise it. And flesh out this character or kill her off.”

In other words, I needed an editor.

My friends were a fine resource, but by not showing them the finished novel, I didn’t allow them that latitude.

I realize that I changed my mind, and the minds of my characters, several times in the writing of the book. I revised chapters, refocused the conflict, altered the course of the story arc. Some might say I flip-flopped.

Which brings us, not too surprisingly, to the political scene.

Some candidates have been accused of the same sort of alteration in their opinions. I have no quarrel with that. I feel that human beings are allowed to change their minds, even are required to do so, when presented with new evidence or unforeseen circumstances. Our opinions evolve as our minds grow. If they don’t, we become ossified.

Most of us don’t have the same mind set we had ten or twenty years ago. That’s natural, even necessary. Alterations in lifestyle can change a swinger into a cautious parent or a driver with a lead foot into a speed-limit conservative after the third ticket.

The difference, as I see it, between politicians’ situation and mine is that I can point out why I changed. I can specify what necessitated the alterations. I would like the men we are considering as our leaders to do the same thing.

What prompted a change of heart? Where was the point at which they realized their previous ideas were wrong? I crave facts.

I understand that it is often difficult to explain personal beliefs or circumstances to strangers. When I detail the reasons for the difference in my point of view, I am usually speaking to friends. Candidates have to speak to three hundred million strangers. That’s a lot more difficult.

But these are people who want to be our leaders. We have a right to know what prompted their ideas, on abortion, health care insurance, gun control, because these are areas that will impact our lives.

I edit my work to make it better. My focus is on my readers as I try to craft the best possible story.

Is that what our candidates are doing? Are they crafting the best possible story? Is that why they’re editing?

Or have they truly had a change of heart?

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The Vorlons or the Shadows?

Has anyone else out there been alternately disgusted and appalled by the Presidential campaigns?

Here we have two intelligent, well-educated, experienced men running against each other. Each has a definite agenda, a strong vision of what America should be like in the future.

Yet their speeches devolved into playground insults. “You’re a dirty liar.” “You’re a stupid cheat.” Nyah, nyah, nyah.

Now that Mr. Romney has chosen his second, I hope that a reasoned, civilized debate can take place. Because both men have plans, backed by good evidence, for the road forward. The problem is that the plans are, as I see it, diametrically opposed.

Mr. Romney’s plan, taken to an even greater degree by Mr. Ryan, is one which is based on competition. It is basically what Mr. Romney did in Bain. A company that is not functioning is taken over and broken up. The parts are absorbed by companies that are solvent. The competition makes all the surviving businesses stronger and capable of growing, thereby growing the economy. It is survival of the fit.

President Obama’s ideas, on the other hand, rely on cooperation. His thrust is that we must all work together, helping those who are less able. In that way, we create a community in which all are stronger.

Does this sound familiar? Anyone who was, like me, a huge fan of the TV show Babylon 5 in the ‘90’s should recognize it.

(Those of you who remember the show can skip the next couple of paragraphs.)

In the fictional 23rd century, the galaxy is caught in a dispute between opposing forces represented by two alien races. The “Shadows”, who were portrayed as the bad guys until the end of the third season, urged other races to war. The competition, they said, winnowed the weaker peoples, getting rid of them so that other races could flourish.

The “Vorlons”, who seemed to be the proponents of light, furthered the course of mutual support. By cooperation, they suggested, all sentient species are strengthened.

The resolution, however, was that both superpowers were acting on their own agendas, not those that would necessarily benefit the entire galaxy. In the end, the “younger races” kick both of them out and decide to find their own way, without the leadership of either, forging a plan that is a compromise between the two.

Okay, back to the 21st century (and welcome back fans of B5). Are the two visions necessarily mutually exclusive? Can’t we take parts of each that will form a grand plan, one that will work so much better?

I hope such a compromise is possible. Neither the social Darwinism of one plan, or the unsustainable spending of the other, is acceptable. My initial reaction to the Republicans’ agenda is one of revulsion, but I am trying to keep an open mind. I fervently wish all Americans will also.


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I must apologize to my readers. Last post, I talked about my novel, but neglected to give the link to the site where it can be purchased–or at least viewed. So:
“Whispers in the Night” can be seen at

Enter the title of the book, and my name (under author): Molly Tabachnikov.

Another word: I’ve issued my short stories in print form (formerly only available electronically) at

Enter the title (The Way It Should Be) and my name (no, I’m not going to type it again–once was enough!)

Hope that helps.

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The incredible journey

After a two-year pregnancy I gave birth to a book.

Well, that’s what it felt like.

As in biology, pinpointing the moment of conception was difficult. It may have been the Berkshire Writers Room workshop where the facilitator, Sharon Mack, brought out two wicker bowls containing tiny folded slips of paper. One bowl contained characters’ names, the other possible titles for stories. We were instructed to select one of each. When I unfolded my choices and read “Fox Monroe” and “Whispers in the Night,” I saw Fox in my mind and had the outlines of his story. It was an awesome case of inspiration.

The short story almost wrote itself. I was content with it, and stored it away as I had done with other stories. But when I showed it to friends and relatives, they persuaded me that I should expand it, fashion a novella. It started to grow. Was that when its life began? So I rewrote it. And I was content with that, too. It sat for three years.

Then I joined the Coral Spring Writers Group. Those talented women, Betty Housey, Cathy Kennedy, Laurianne MacDonald, Roxanne Smolen and Zelda Beck, talked me into turning it into a novel. When Greta Silver joined us later, she added her voice to the clamor.

So I embarked on the gargantuan task of writing a book. Had I known. . . Nah, I would have done it anyway.

Learning to “spread out” into novel form was difficult. I was used to writing short stories, to being compact. (It was the only time in my life when “getting larger” was difficult!) I persevered. I wrote the first chapter and presented it to the group. Perhaps there is where the zygote of imagination started to grow.

They tore it apart. Constructively, of course. They offered advice on making minor characters more believable, writing seamless narrative, being more aware of repetitive words or phrases. The advice was invaluable.

After about a year and a half, I put the final period on the last chapter. Finished! Yeah, sure.

The rewriting started. Sometimes entire chapters were discarded and reworked, while at other times it was just a matter of changing words. Characters were added or deleted, dialogue revamped. It was harder than the original writing had been.

I began to contact literary agents and publishers. They were all very polite, most were encouraging, but all sent the same message. “Thanks, but no thanks.”

I found iUniverse, a “vanity publishing” company. That meant I paid them to publish my book. I must say, I enjoyed working with them. Their representatives were professional and helpful, and I believe their suggestions made the book stronger. This collaboration continued for two months, from editorial evaluation to preparation of a press release. (A press release! I never imagined.)

And now my creation is on its own, brought bawling and protesting into the world. I worry about Fox, as any mother would. How will he fare in this unsheltered environment? What if (as Hagrid said about Norbert) the other kids are mean to him?

What if the critics don’t like him?

Whatever the result, he’s out there, on his own. I’ve sent him skipping gaily off to meet and mingle with other works. He’s his own person.

I don’t regret a second of it.


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