The whole truth about The Pentagon Papers: Most Dangerous + The Post


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Film and fiction bring their own strengths to storytelling. The secrets behind The Pentagon Papers requires both to fully understand the people and events that shaped this turning point in American history and culture.

Most Dangerous, by Steve Sheinkin, reveals the how and why The Pentagon Papers were stolen and released to the press by Daniel Ellsberg. The Post (starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep), is the story of the Washington Post’s role in exposing the lies behind the Vietnam war to the American public.

Most Dangerous, by Steve Sheinkin

Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

Most Dangerous, coverDaniel Ellsberg was the obscure government analyst who became “the most dangerous man in America” by risking everything to expose decades of government deception and lies.

On June 13, 1971, the New York Times exposed The Pentagon Papers to the world, documents that contained the secret history of the Vietnam War. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had documented the government’s actions in the Vietnam War, revealing lies that spanned four presidencies. Sheinkin’s captivating narrative provides direct insight into the people and political events that brought Ellesberg—a self-proclaimed patriot—to commiting what many would call treason. Sheinkin interviewed Ellsberg and others who were involved in shining the light of truth on The Pentagon Papers. The result is a front row seat to what the New York Times deemed “the biggest story of the century”, as if you are experiencing it unfold in real-time. Thought provoking and emotionally stirring, Most Dangerous delves into the true meaning of patriotism, freedom, and integrity.

This engaging narrative nonfiction investigation of The Pentagon Papers was the 2015 National Book Award finalist and winner of the 2016 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award.

The Post

The Post, in comparison, focuses on the unprecedented battle between the press and the The Post, movie postergovernment regarding the right print The Pentagon Papers. Katharine Graham, the country’s first female newspaper publisher and her hard-driving editor Ben Bradlee were the force behind bringing the truth behind the Vietnam war to the American people.

The Washington Post’s legal team advised Graham against publishing the stolen documents, as Nixon would surely slam them with criminal charges. If they lost the legal battle, Graham risked destroying the newspaper that was her family legacy. If they won, she’d the Post would become a national journalistic institution. She was a fighter. She ran the story.

The White House retaliated with full force, and the Post and Times went before the Supreme Court to plead their First Amendment stance. Newspapers across the country rallied the story in solidarity, and the court ruled in favor of the newspaper and the people’s right to know.

Meryl Streep’s performance provides a movingly nuanced reflection of the societal inequality professional women of the time faced. For this reason, The Post is as much a statement about the turning tides of equality as it is about freedom of the press and the American people’s right to know.

NASA cats are a thing!


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Cats have sailed the seven seas (like Hemingway’s polydactyl cats), managed libraries (Dewey and Max the library cat), and supervised the United States Postal System (USPS). So why not NASA? There are theories that cats came from outer space. Which seems highly unlikely, if only for lack of kitty treats. But with cats, nothing is ever what’s likely.

NASA cats logo

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the executive branch of the United States federal government responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research.

And…they have cats!  Why am I surprised?

The CATS space program

NASA created a Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) that launched in 2014. CATS is a remote sensing instrument to provide range-resolved profile measurements of atmospheric aerosols and clouds from the International Space Station (ISS). In simple English, it’s technology that interprets (and helps us predict) the weather.

Does anyone else smell something fishy about all this? The CATS program could quite possibly be the brain child of ingenious interstellar felines. After all, cats are extremely finicky about exposure to rain, sleet, and snow!


Here’s the official NASA CATS brochure. Though, it might have been humanized, so we won’t realize just how in control felines are of NASA…and the world.

The REAL NASA cats & the Ames Cat Network

There are plenty of real cats roaming the grounds of NASA, at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. Sadly, many were abandoned without even being fixed. Left to reproduce uncontrolled, the cat population boomed.

The kind folks at NASA partnered with the Palo Alto Humane Society to trap, spay and neuter, and find homes for these cats in need. The Ames Cat Network was created, and each cat is tested, altered, and inoculated before being offered for adoption.

If you or someone you know in the San Francisco area is interested in fostering or adopting a NASA cat, please contact the Palo Alto Humane Society at 650.424.1901.

Other organizations in the San Francisco Bay area that help homeless animals, and have many wonderful pets available for adoption:

Creativity kickstart for writers ~ 5 super fun steps!


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January is International Creativity Month, a great time to remember where the magic happens in the creative process. If we’re honest, there’s two drastically different sides to writing fiction:

  • OC (obsessive compulsive)—the linear, orderly mindset required for tracking the details that make a novel rich and believable
  • Happy place—where stories start and creativity takes flight

Imaginative rocket made of school supplies

Getting lost in the necessary details

We have to think linearly, assess the plausible, and be orderly and organized in execution to write good fiction. As Mark Twain so adeptly explained, “Fiction, after all, has to make sense.”

Writing a novel requires tracking story structure, character traits and arcs, setting and world building details. And maybe more! JK Rowling created an overall spreadsheet for the Harry Potter series, as well as spreadsheets for each individual book. The following image is of Rowling’s hand drawn spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

JK Rowling's outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Rowling’s grid outlines the chapter, month, chapter title, with an explanation of how that chapter relates to the over-arching plot of the book. There are columns for each of the book’s six subplots (prophecies, Harry’s romantic interests, Dumbledore’s Army, Order of the Phoenix, Snape and crew, and Hagrid) as well.

Remembering all the necessary details across hundreds of pages can bog down the heartiest of writers, especially when under deadline. Luckily, there’s a cure!

Creative rejuvenation

Creativity is innate to everyone. Much of what is perceived as “writer’s block” is temporary amnesia, we’ve forgotten the pure joy of having fun. When your creative fuel tank sputters on empty, try the following steps to blast your creativity into orbit:

  1. Do something silly, like running up the Down escalator, jumping on the bed, or having a food fight. Breaking up your routine with something random and unexpected, opens a creative doorway.
  2. Make a creative mess. A BIG one! Nothing breaks the bonds of orderly stuckness quicker than doing something that’s the total opposite.
  3. Skip. Everywhere. For an entire day! We stop skipping around the age of 10 or 12, but no one knows why. Scientifically that is. I think it’s because that’s the age we start forgetting how to naturally have fun. Skipping for an entire day will force you to remember what it was like to be naturally happy. Instant creativity is the result.
  4. Do something your 12 year-old self loved to do. For me it was rollerblading, but do whatever made you happy at that age. Again, it’s about tricking yourself into remembering what it’s like to be naturally happy. Then, the creative faucet turns on with firehose force.
  5. Give yourself permission to do NOTHING for an entire day. This is harder than it sounds. In our overachiever society, we’ve forgotten how to slow down and live in the moment. For more about this creativity enhancing practice, check out The Art of Doing Nothing, by Veronique Vienne.

Tranquil spa setting

Undercover Cats: The TRUTH about Disneyland’s Secret Cast Members


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The cats are out of the bag. And to think it happened in Fantasyland… There’s more to their covert kitty fluff than gratuitous sass and snark, though. Disneyland cats are working cats-members that provide a valuable function in the Happiest Place on Earth.

Covert Kitties Turned Social Media Mavens

Several years ago Taylor Roberts, a freelance writer, glimpsed a cat darting across a path in Fantasyland and snapped a picture.

That night he started the Cats of Disneyland Twitter account with tweets voiced by the witty cats. A web site soon followed: Cats of Disneyland.

With Roberts’ dry humor combined with photos of the covert cats, Disneyland’s secret cats-members skyrocketed to social media stardom. Articles about Disneyland cats were featured in the Los Angeles Times and KTLA. Blog posts were written about them, like my 2015 post, The Cats Behind the Mouse. (Giovanni, Disneyland California Adventure, PC:Elizabeth Fais)

In a theme park inspired by the world’s most famous mouse, it’s the cats of Disneyland who have the run of the place. —Los Angeles Times

As Becky so proudly flaunts, atop the roof of the Mexican eatery in Frontierland, Rancho del Zocalo (PC:Elizabeth Fais).

Becky, Disneyland Cat
All the media hype continued to keep the cats’ indisputable value to the daily operation of the Park a secret, though.

Cats-members with a Cause

Disney parks pride themselves in cleanliness. So it’s a little embarrassing that cats are necessary for the Disney “Mouse” squeaky clean image. In truth, the cats play an important role in keeping rats and other vermin out of the Park.

Disneyland’s cats have been behind-the-scenes cast members since the Park opened in 1955, infiltrating the grounds from the surrounding orange groves of the time.

The cats at Disneyland are feral, which means they are happy living and hunting outdoors, and prefer to stay away from people.

I became interested in the cat population at Disneyland, because of the work I do with feral cats in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve made several trips to Disneyland to research the cats. On one trip, I talked with the manager of the feral cat program and here’s what I learned:

  • Approximately 200 cats live at the Disneyland Resort, including Disneyland California Adventure, the Disneyland Hotel, and the Grand Californian Hotel.
  • The cats have been trapped, spay or neutered, and then released (TNR) back into the park. This is the proven, humane method for managing feral cat populations. For more information, read about Stanford campus’ Feline Friends Network.
  • There are feeding stations for the cats “back stage” to supplement their diet and keep them healthy.(PCs:Elizabeth Fais, Ned, at the Disneyland Hotel)
  • They’ve implemented an ingenious flea management program that is low-stress for the cats and highly effective.
  • The cats are given medical care and attention, as needed. This ensures healthy, long lives for each of the cats.
  • When a cat becomes too friendly with Park guests, they are given a home with a devoted Park employee.
  • Feeding and petting the cats is discouraged at all times. Disneyland cats are wild animals, and must be treated with respect and caution.
  • The best times to get a glimpse the cats are early in the morning (early admission, if possible), or around sunset. Feral cats are nocturnal, and usually sleep out of sight during the day.
  • Ask cast members for tips on where the cats hang out. The evening crew seemed to know the most when I asked, as that’s when the cats are most active.

Disneyland Cats: Unsung Heroes!

Something must be done…I mean sung! The “underdog story” is popular in the Disney Classics library.Francisco, Disneyland Cat It’s time to break old boundaries and blaze new trails. We need an “undercat story” accompanied with terrific songs. Of course!

Disneyland Cats
The Musical

Are you listening Andrew Lloyd Webber,
Pixar &
Disney Animation Studios?

Francisco’s already to auditioning!


(PC: Elizabeth Fais, Francisco, Disneyland California Adventure)

The secret to getting published: Don’t give up!


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Writing your first book is a thrill like no other, a total high. Then the rejections come, and reality sets in. Fast. The thing is, rejections are part of the process. Get over it and keep going.

There’s no such thing as an overnight success

That is…unless you count the 10 years of hard work that came before. We’ve all heard the stories of the famous author whose success happened overnight.

The truth is, it didn’t. Successful authors put in years of work before ever getting published.

All that work was the foundation for the great books that lead to their success.

  • J.K. Rowling taught school and then was a researcher and bilingual secretary for years, all the while writing fiction on the side. She was unemployed and near poverty when she wrote the first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
  • Meg Cabot spent several years (!) rigorously submitting manuscripts before landing her agent. She got a book deal after that, but had to keep working at her job and New York University until her success with The Princess Diaries series.
  • Kate Dicamillo received something like 463 rejections before selling her first book. She went on to be one of six people to win two Newberry Medals—for The Tale of Despereaux and Flora and Ulysses—all because she didn’t give up.
  • Mary E. Pearson, author of the New York Times Bestselling series The Remnant Chronicles, admitted at an author event that she wrote five (!) novels that would never see the light of day, and that it took ten years before she sold the one that made her a published author.

The difference between a published author and an unpublished author is that the published author didn’t give up.


How to keep writing while dodging tornadoes

TornadosLife drops roadblocks and raves in our paths—like tornadoes dropping from the sky—forcing our writing onto uncharted detours. Who knew dodging tornadoes would be a valuable writing skill?

There are happy detours, and those filled with sadness and loss. Even life threatening, if you discover a loved one’s been framed for blackmail, and the Russian mafia comes after you when you publicize the crime across social media, looping in the FBI. It could happen. Tornadoes come in all shapes and sizes, all equally disruptive to our writing goals.

Whatever tornado you’re dodging right now…know you are not alone. Here’s a few things that kept me going when tornado dodging got tough:

  • Write something every day. Even if it’s only a note to remind you to write something better tomorrow.
  • Go to author visits. Invariably, you’ll hear the ordeal that published author went through to get their first book deal.
  • Read. Read. Read. It’s the next best thing to writing. You’ll be surprised how much you absorb on craft, especially when reading a variety of genres.
  • Watch TV series in your genre. It’s a great way to study story and character development.
  • Read author blogs that inspire you.
  • Read books on craft that help polish your writing weaknesses. We all have them. Most of us, more than one.
  • Remember what got you excited about writing. Revisit whatever it was that sparked the creative fire that set you on your writing journey.
  • Believe you’ll make it across the publishing bridge after the tornadoes pass. Because you will. As long as you don’t give up.

Rainbow Bridge


Santa writes back! ~ Get a letter from the North Pole


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Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus!

The United States Postal Service can help you prove it too. Santa can reply to your child’s letter from his workshop, complete with a North Pole postmark.

North Pole Postmark

How to get a North Pole postmark

You can make Santa and his workshop real for your child with a personal reply to their letter that includes a North Pole postmark. Here’s how.

  1. Write a letter to your child and sign it From Santa.
  2. Put the letter in an envelope and address it to your child.
  3. Add the return address SANTA, NORTH POLE.
  4. Affix a First Class stamp to the envelope.
  5. Place the complete envelope in a larger envelope with the appropriate postage (to cover the extra weight), and address to:
    North Pole Postmark
    4141 Postmark Dr.
    Anchorage, AK 99530-9998

If you want to know how writing letters to Santa became a thing, you can read Alex Palmer’s A Brief History of Sending a Letter to Santa in Smithsonian Magazine.

Miracle on 34th Street

The mystery of depth ~ Creating characters we care about


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Agents and editors want stories that have characters they can care about, characters with depth. For the longest time, I had no idea how to accomplish this. I knew depth meant complexity, but how you created that quality in characters was a mystery. Then one day, while watching an episode of NCIS, the pieces of the character-depth-puzzle magically fell into place. Who knew Abby and Gibbs would be the key that unlocked this literary mystery?

NCIS -- Abby and Gibbs

1. Mix it up with multiple character traits

In a 2-dimensional painting, everything appears flat. You get the same effect with characters that only have one basic trait—bully, geek, mean girl, wimp, etc. To avoid flat characters, give them multiple traits of varying strengths.

I like the analogy of creating perspective in a painting. What’s in the foreground is mountains at sunsetmore intense and has greater detail. As should be the predominant trait of a character. With increased distance in a painting, objects become lighter and have less detail. Secondary and tertiary character traits should have less focus as well.

When Building a Better Character, reveal the traits over time as the character interacts with others and reacts to various situations.

2. Shake & stir: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Just as characters need a blend of traits to be believable, they must also display a variety of emotions. No one is perfect, and we wouldn’t like them if they were. Show their good side, so we like them, but don’t hold back on the bad and the ugly.

3. Peal back the layers

It’s human nature. The longer we savor an experience, the richer our enjoyment. This is why it’s important for characters to unfold and grow along with the plot.

Think of pealing back the layers of an onion. Each layer should reveal something unique and intimately real about the character. When we first meet someone, we get a superficial impression of who they are. It takes time, and a variety of experiences, before we get to know who they really are. It should be the same with our characters.

At a San Francisco South Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Agents Day conference, former literary agent, Mary Kole explained how to explore a character’s inner life through interiority. Interiority is a combination of the character’s internal dialog and point of view. To learn more, check out her book on Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers.

4. Pressure cook for change

diamond sitting on coalCharacter depth requires change over the course of the story. The Character Arc is a journey that forces the character to confront their frailties to become wiser and stronger.

All great stories are about transformation. To survive, the hero has to change by facing their greatest fear and overcoming it. Blake Snyder—in the popular story structure guide, Save the Cat!—called this The Dark Night of the Soul.

Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) puts characters through hell—literally and figuratively. This pressure has the same effect as the pressure that transforms a lump of coal into a diamond. It smooths off their rough edges and makes them shine.

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are. ― Joss Whedon

LED Sheep ~ Ewe light up my life!


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High-tech sheep herding

Maybe it’s the proliferation of world-wide disasters of late, both natural and man-made, but I’ve been thinking of the Welsh sheep herders and their LED sheep … a lot. Rather timely (but a total coincidence!), with the Blade Runner sequel hitting the theaters this week. The original Blade Runner was based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

LED sheep herding

What I love about this project is its joyful innocence and whimsy.

A lot of time and effort went into creating an image of the Mona Lisa (credited to Leonardo Baa Vinci!) with sheep wearing LED vests. For the sheer joy of it! If you haven’t seen the video (created in 2009), do it now! If you’ve seen it but need a little light in your life, watch it again. Pronto.

This video makes me wonder: What can we do today to bring a little joy and whimsy into the world around us? (LED sheep are not required, but always welcome). Pay-it-forward, except with fun.

Instigate fun today. It’s contagious!


Joyful whimsy and LED sheep herding

Hilarious history ~ Told by the funniest writer in fiction!


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Sid Fleischman was (and arguably still is) the funniest fiction writer…ever. I’m not alone in this opinion. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) created a Humor Sid Fleischman Humor AwardAward in his honor, and made him the first recipient. The Sid Fleischman Humor Award is an award for authors whose work exemplifies the excellence of writing in the genre of humor. 

As SCBWI President Stephen Mooser said, “Sid the Magician may not be as famous as Sid the Writer. It’s one thing to make someone laugh. But his ability to do that in so many stories with such poignancy is nothing short of magic. 

So it’s no surprise that the funniest writer in fiction worked his magic with hilarious history too.

The Trouble Begins at 8 ~
A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West

Who better to tell the rambunctious tale of a young river boat pilot who gallops off to take on the wild, wild West than Sid Fleischman? The tale is all true, and told with a wit as sharp as Mark Twain himself.

The title itself signals the fun that’s to come…taken from the poster Mark Twain used to advertise his public talks: The doors open at seven, The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock.

Fleischman takes the reins from there with hopping hilarity: “Mark Twain was born fully grown, with a cheap cigar clamped between his teeth.”

You might think (as I did) that Mark Twain began writing as a young man, while piloting river boats on the Mississippi river. Afterall, that was the stage on which his two most famous novels were set: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But no. Those books wouldn’t come until much later. Twain’s writing career began with his adventures in the wild, wild west. Virginia City, Nevada to be exact, writing for a newspaper in a place where tumbleweeds were the biggest thing to blow through town.

The First in Fake News

It’s true. Mark Twain made his name writing Fake News. When there was no news, “Sam gave his bubbling imagination a stir and ladled out a wondrous hoax. He reported the discovery of a petrified man.

Mark Twain at the helm of a river boatTwain created the tale to stir up trouble with the competing newspaper in town, and tickle the funny bones of the readers. In a time before television and social media this was great entertainment, and an instant success! So much so, the hoax was picked up by newspapers across the country.

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was the tall tale that brought Twain national acclaim. The short story awarded him notoriety as a writer, but travel and lecture series would consume his time for years. It wasn’t until Twain married and settled in Connecticut that he’d write two of the most celebrated novels in fiction.

Sir Charlie ~
Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World

Charlie Chaplin embraced the pain of his youth, played with it, then used it to become famous for being funny. He instinctively knew that what makes you laugh the most, also makes you cry the most. Sid Fleischman tells the Little Tramp’s poignant tale, matching Chaplin’s humor with heartwarming empathy.

See him? That little tramp twitching a postage stamp of a mustache, politely lifting his bowler hat, and leaning on a bamboo cane with the confidence of a gentleman? A slapstick comedian, he blazed forth as the brightest movie star in the Hollywood heavens.

Everyone knew Charlie—Charlie Chaplin.

When he was five years old he was pulled onstage for the first time, and he didn’t step off again for almost three-quarters of a century. Escaping the London slums of his tragic childhood, he took Hollywood like a conquistador with a Cockney accent. With his gift for pantomime in films that had not yet acquired vocal cords, he was soon rubbing elbows with royalty and dining on gold plates in his own Beverly Hills mansion. He was the most famous man on earth—and he was regarded as the funniest.

Still is. . . . He comes to life in these pages. It’s an astonishing rags-to-riches saga of an irrepressible kid whose childhood was dealt from the bottom of the deck. [Synopsis]

In case you’ve never seen Charlie Chaplin in action…

“Buffy” wisdom ~ Hope for troubled times


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Remarkable as it may seem, Joss Whedon‘s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER is still (after 14 years) a gold standard for many writers.

This is because, in spite of the window dressings of vampires, monsters, magic, and witchcraft, the heart of the story was always rooted in the human condition.

The secret to the show’s meaningfulness and longevity stems from Whedon’s purpose. The reasons “why” Whedon writes touch our universal core. They are primal.

Hope amidst adversity

If you haven’t watched this series, you’re in for a treat when you do. In the mean time, to get you on the same page: Bad things happen…a lot. For good reasons too:

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are. ― Joss Whedon

We’ve all had personal difficulties, some of us may have had to wade through some Buffy and Dawnpretty dark times. We can all relate to Buffy’s perils and hardships…on some level. Especially with the state of our world and the current affairs we witness on a daily basis.

Just as real as the adversities Buffy faced, was the undying light of the human spirit. It was hope guiding them to vanquish darkness and find their way to safety.

Buffy and Dawn

Yes. I know it’s fiction. But it resonates with with us because it’s primal. Whedon used the following musical score to convey this universal truth…no matter your faith. Though the words were written centuries ago, they bring hope to our modern times too.

Prayer of St. Francis ~ Sarah McLachlan