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Chippewa Valley Writers Guild moving summer retreat to The Priory

When B.J. Hollars reflects on the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild’s summer retreats, the most magical moments occurred at the end of a long day.

Writers of all sorts — poets, journalists, fiction and nonfiction authors, playwrights — would gather to commiserate after a long day of creating and honing their craft together, within Cirenaica, a country lodge tucked away just south of Fall Creek.

Now, as Hollars, Guild founder and director, looks ahead to the fourth year of summer residencies, he’s all the more excited, as the Guild will be trading the intimate oasis that was Cirenaica for UW-Eau Claire’s Priory Hall.

The new locale, set on 120 acres of woods just a few miles from downtown Eau Claire at 1190 Priory Road, will provide a more convenient location and greater space capabilities with its 48 rooms.

“We loved our old location — Cirenaica was really magical and a perfect spot for us to get our dream to come to fruition,” Hollars said. “But over time we realized we could help more people if we had a space that could support more writers; if we could have a space that allowed for more collaborative opportunities. ... Now that we have the opportunity for 48 participants to gather together, the possible collaborations that might come forth from those conversations excite me to no end.”

Since launching the Guild and summer residency program in 2016, the number of applicants has continued to grow, Hollars said, and with the Cirenaica property only having enough rooms for seven people, it was only a matter of time until the Guild would need a new location.

Many writers were forced to commute to and from Cirenaica each day, missing out on the retreat, camp- like experience of the residency, Hollars said.

Although participants can still opt to commute to the 2019 retreat, Hollars said the Guild will now have more space to offer and, he hopes, boundless new opportunities to go with it.

“We always want to invest in the success of our faculty and students, and we have a rich history of outstanding writers in the university,” said Kimera Way, president of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, which sponsors the Guild along with the Pablo Center at the Confluence. “With B.J.’s leadership, we want to continue offering these opportunities to our faculty and staff to hone their writing skills. And if The Priory is a better fit for that, that’s great.

But the location isn’t the only change being made to the summer residency program.

Rather than hosting four to six separate residencies as has been done in the past, the Guild instead will host one retreat July 18-21.

Four professional writers-in-residence will spearhead a small-group, immersive experience dedicated to different writing genres and topics during the day, with large-group open-mic sessions and craft talks each night, Hollars said.

The combination of both large- and small-group learning and collaboration will provide new opportunities in that writers of all disciplines will have the chance to swap ideas and inspiration, Hollars said.

“Maybe you’re a prose writer and that’s what you do, but now maybe that person will be able to learn how they can incorporate poetry in their work,” Hollars said. “I want this to be something that can support all writers in our region — the more we all get together, the more good stuff comes from it.”

Twin Cities-based folk comedian Mary Mack will be one of the featured writers for 2019, leading a retreat dedicated to writing comedy. A fiction retreat will be led by Nickolas Butler, bestselling Eau Claire author who will be returning for his fourth year.

Also returning will be former Wisconsin poet laureate Max Garland, who will serve as the keynote speaker at the retreat’s opening festivities. The remaining writers-in-residence will be announced in the months to come, Hollars said.

Also unlike past years, Hollars said the weekend retreat will culminate with a performance at the recently-erected Pablo Center at the Confluence, where all writers in residence will have the opportunity to share their work after a weekend of intensive writing and re-writing. Hollars hopes the event will be made available for the public.

Although the three residencies Ken Szymanski participated in at Cirenaica were “magical,” he’s excited to preserve “the legend” of the old location while also making new memories at The Priory.

“It’s kind of cool that it didn’t have the chance to get old or stale,” the DeLong Middle School English teacher said. “It’s good for creative people to always be in a new setting and to be changing and evolving and not getting too stuck in traditions.”

Applications for The Priory Writers’ Retreat will open in February.

Shutdown could block federal aid to farmers hit by trade war

WASHINGTON — The end of 2018 seemed to signal good things to come for America’s farmers. Fresh off the passage of the farm bill, which reauthorized agriculture, conservation and safety net programs, the USDA last week announced a second round of direct payments to growers hardest hit by President Donald Trump’s trade war with China.

Then the government shut down.

The USDA in a statement issued last week assured farmers that checks would continue to go out during the first week of the shutdown. But direct payments for farmers who haven’t certified production, as well as farm loans and disaster assistance programs, will be put on hold beginning next week and won’t start up again until the government reopens.

There is little chance of the government shutdown ending soon. Trump and Congress are no closer to reaching a deal over his demand for border wall funding, and both sides say the impasse could drag well into January.

Although certain vital USDA programs will remain operational in the short term, that could change if the shutdown lasts for more than a few weeks.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, helps feed roughly 40 million Americans. According to the USDA, eligible recipients are guaranteed benefits through January. Other feeding programs, including WIC, which provides food aid and nutrition counseling for pregnant women, new mothers and children, and food distribution programs on Indian reservations, will continue on a local level, but additional federal funding won’t be provided. School lunch programs will continue through February.

USDA has earmarked about $9.5 billion in direct payments for growers of soybeans, corn, wheat, sorghum and other commodities most affected by tariffs. The first round of payments went out in September.

The deadline to sign up for the second round of payments is Jan. 15.

The impact of the shutdown, which began shortly before most federal workers were scheduled for a holiday break, started coming into focus by midweek.

About 420,000 employees are working without pay, while another 380,000 are being forced to stay home. In the past, federal employees have been paid retroactively. But government contractors won’t get paid for hours they’ll lose staying home, causing problems for those who rely on hourly wages.

In anticipation of the financial bind many federal workers and contractors may soon find themselves in, the Office of Personnel Management offered some advice: haggle with landlords, creditors and mortgage companies for lower payments until the shutdown is over.

The shutdown also is affecting national parks, although unevenly: Some remain accessible with bare-bones staffing levels, some are operating with money from states or charitable groups, while others are locked off.

Branden Nall photo  

Menomonie’s Destiny Haldeman goes up for a shot during the Mustangs’ 60-48 victory against Osseo-Fairchild on Thursday.

Supreme Court keeps a lower profile, but for how long?

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court began its term with the tumultuous confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, followed by a studied avoidance of drama on the high court bench — especially anything that would divide the five conservatives and four liberals.

The justices have been unusually solicitous of each other in the courtroom since Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and several have voiced concern that the public perceives the court as merely a political institution. Chief Justice John Roberts seems determined to lead the one Washington institution that stays above the political fray.

The next few weeks will test whether the calm can last.

When they gather in private on Friday to consider new cases for arguments in April and into next term, the justices will confront a raft of high-profile appeals.

Abortion restrictions, workplace discrimination against LGBT people and partisan gerrymandering are on the agenda. Close behind are appeals from the Trump administration seeking to have the court allow it to end an Obama-era program that shields young immigrants from deportation and to put in place restrictive rules for transgender troops.

There already are signs that the conservative justices, apart from Roberts, are willing to take on controversial cases that are likely to produce the ideological and partisan divisions that their colleagues seem eager to avoid.

In recent weeks, three conservative justices accused the court of ducking its job of deciding important cases, especially when lower courts have disagreed on the outcome. Their criticism, written by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, came after a recent decision to avoid a case involving funding for Planned Parenthood.

Then, on Dec. 21, the court divided 5-4 in refusing to allow the Trump administration to enforce new restrictions on asylum seekers. Roberts joined the four liberals. The three conservatives who were displeased by the Planned Parenthood case outcome again noted their disagreement, this time joined by Kavanaugh.

The two votes can’t be used to draw any firm conclusions about what may be happening behind closed doors at the court, as the cases arrived in different circumstances. In the Planned Parenthood case, the justices were considering whether to grant full review, a process that takes only four votes. The asylum case was an emergency appeal from the administration. At least five of the nine justices would have had to vote in the administration’s favor.

But Lawrence Solum, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University’s law school, said Roberts seems to have two reasons to limit the court’s involvement in hot-button cases: his preference for taking small steps in the law and his concern for the court’s reputation.

“It’s clear that 5-4 decisions will be perceived by many, many lawyers, many politicians and large numbers of the public at large as ideological decisions,” Solum said. “So given Roberts’ desire to preserve the legitimacy of the court, he could be highly motivated to avoid decisions like that in the next immediate period in the history of the court. Whether that’s one year, or two years or five years, who knows?”

The court arrived at this point after an unusual chain of events that began with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Senate Republicans refused to act on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, allowing Trump to put Gorsuch on the court in 2017. To this day, Democrats say the seat was stolen from them.

When Justice Anthony Kennedy retired last summer Trump got to replace the court’s swing vote with a more reliable conservative. Kavanaugh’s track record as an appellate judge suggested he was that man, but his confirmation was nearly derailed by allegations of sexual assault, which Kavanaugh denied.

The accusations against Kavanaugh turned the confirmation process into a national spectacle that culminated in a hearing with Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of assault when they were in high school. Republicans said the allegation was unproven and confirmed Kavanaugh in a rare Saturday session.

One result of the Kavanaugh turmoil has been the most serious discussion in decades of limiting the court’s powers, including possibly increasing the number of justices, Solum said. “It suggests that the legitimacy of the court is at issue now in perhaps a way it hasn’t been until recently.”

Roberts is not only the chief justice, but he has essentially taken on the role as the swing vote — the conservative justice nearest the court’s center. The Supreme Court will go only as far as Roberts is willing in either direction.

He can try to keep the court entirely out of some cases, though that requires him to be able to persuade at least one other conservative justice to go along. That’s what happened in the Planned Parenthood case, when Kavanaugh voted to deny review.

When the justices do plunge into controversy, Roberts will be able “to write or insist that decisions be narrowly drawn,” said John McGinnis, a Northwestern University law school professor.

Roberts has been chief justice for more than 13 years, but he is only 63 and could lead the court for an additional two decades or more. That allows Roberts, who began his legal career as a lawyer in the Reagan administration, to take a long view, McGinnis said, and await a time when political tensions and concerns about the court’s reputation subside.

GOP and Democrats trade blame for shutdown, no deal in sight

WASHINGTON — The partial government shutdown will almost certainly be handed off to a divided government to solve in the new year, as President Donald Trump sought to raise the stakes Friday and both parties traded blame in the weeklong impasse.

Agreement eludes Washington in the waning days of the Republican monopoly on power, and that sets up the first big confrontation between Trump and newly empowered Democrats. Trump is sticking with his demand for money to build a wall along the southern border, and Democrats, who take control of the House on Thursday, are refusing to give him what he wants.

Trump worked to escalate the showdown Friday, reissuing threats to close the U.S.-Mexico border to pressure Congress to fund the wall and to shut off aid to three Central American countries from which many migrants have fled.

“We will be forced to close the Southern Border entirely if the Obstructionist Democrats do not give us the money to finish the Wall & also change the ridiculous immigration laws that our Country is saddled with,” he wrote in one of a series of tweets.

The president also signaled he was in no rush to seek a resolution, welcoming the fight as he heads toward his own bid for re-election in 2020. He tweeted Thursday evening that Democrats may be able to block him now, “but we have the issue, Border Security. 2020!”

Incoming acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Trump had canceled his plans to travel to Florida to celebrate New Year’s at his private Mar-a-Lago club.

The shutdown is forcing hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors to stay home or work without pay, and many are experiencing mounting stress from the impasse. It also is beginning to pinch citizens who count on public services.

Gates are closed at some national parks, new farm loans will be put on hold beginning next week, and in New York, the chief judge of Manhattan federal courts suspended work on civil cases involving U.S. government lawyers, including several civil lawsuits in which Trump himself is a defendant.

The Smithsonian Institution also announced that museums and galleries popular with visitors and locals in the nation’s capital will close starting midweek if the partial shutdown drags on.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will keep disaster-response teams and other essential workers on the job as it becomes the latest agency to start furloughing employees in the government shutdown.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., released a statement applauding a decision by the administration to reverse new guidance issued by the Department of Homeland Security that prevented the Federal Emergency Management Agency from writing or renewing National Flood Insurance Program policies during the current government shutdown. He said it was important that people could continue to get and maintain their flood insurance.

With another long holiday weekend coming and nearly all lawmakers away from the Capitol there is little expectation of a quick fix.

“We are far apart,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told CBS on Friday, claiming of Democrats, “They’ve left the table all together.”

Mulvaney said Democrats are no longer negotiating with the administration over an earlier offer to accept less than the $5 billion Trump wants for the wall. Democrats said the White House offered $2.5 billion for border security, but that Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told Vice President Mike Pence it wasn’t acceptable.

“There’s not a single Democrat talking to the president of the United States about this deal,” Mulvaney said Friday

Speaking on Fox News and later to reporters, incoming acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney tried to drive a wedge between Democrats, pinning the blame on House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi has all but locked up the support she needs to win the gavel on Jan. 3 and there is also no sign of daylight between her and Schumer in the negotiations over government funding.

Mulvaney added of the shutdown: “We do expect this to go on for a while.”

Democrats brushed off the White House’s attempt to cast blame.

“For the White House to try and blame anyone but the president for this shutdown doesn’t pass the laugh test,” said Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Schumer.

Pelosi has vowed to pass legislation to reopen the nine shuttered departments and dozens of agencies now hit by the partial shutdown as soon as she takes the gavel as speaker of the House, which is expected when the new Congress convenes.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill added that Democrats “are united against the President’s immoral, ineffective and expensive wall” and said Democrats won’t seriously consider any White House offer unless Trump backs it publicly because he “has changed his position so many times.”

“While we await the President’s public proposal, Democrats have made it clear that, under a House Democratic Majority, we will vote swiftly to reopen government on Day One,” Hammill said in a statement.

But even that may be difficult without a compromise because the Senate will remain in Republican hands and Trump’s signature will be needed to turn any bill into law.

“I think it’s obvious that until the president decides he can sign something — or something is presented to him — that we are where we are,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who opened the Senate on Thursday for a session that only lasted minutes.

Trump had said during his campaign that Mexico would pay for his promised wall, but Mexico refuses to do so. It was unclear how Trump’s threat to close the border would affect his efforts to ratify an amended North American free trade pact.

He has repeatedly threatened to cut off U.S. aid to countries that he deems have not done enough to combat illegal immigration, but thus far he’s failed to follow through. Experts have warned that cutting off aid money to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras could actually exacerbate the problem by worsening the poverty and violence that push many migrants to leave.

And it is Congress, not the president, which appropriates aid money.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador reacted cautiously to Trump’s threat to close the border, calling it an “internal affair of the U.S. government.”

“We are always seeking a good relationship with the United States. We do not want to be rash,” he said.