Okay. So. Several months ago I bought a farm in Stardew Valley. I moved in at the urging of The Boy, who had been farming successfully there for quite some time and had heard of a multi-player upgrade coming soon. He lured me in with intimations that it might be a game we could actually play together without me going into a snit at losing badly, or a slightly different snit at being lifted up, carried around, and thrown at whatever element I needed to manipulate with a stern injunction: “Push that!” “Pull that!” “Throw me up there!” “Mo-o-o-m….” (I’m looking at you, Tak and the Legend of Juju.)

When I arrived in Stardew Valley I found that I had a fixer-upper house (one room, a bed, an ugly stove, an ugly chair, an ugly table), and that was pretty much it except for a few tools: a hoe, a pickaxe, a watering can, and an ax. Everything was small and dull. Still, though, it was The Boy asking, and there were no enormous monsters waiting to kill me or dudes in bizarre armor shooting at me with space-age weapons, or hacking at me with medieval swords. So that was good.

I hoed a little garden, bought a few seeds…and fainted right in my freshly tilled soil before I could plant anything. It turns out I was a weak, delicate little farmer who needed afternoon naps by 2 pm, Stardew Valley time. Still, though, I persevered. When I woke up I finished planting my garden, watered it, and went to bed, even though it was only 10 am and I still had a little life left. No sense in pushing things.

Things got better, of course. My little farmer developed muscles and endurance (can you say calves like cantaloupes?), and soon could stay out working until 2am, which in Stardew Valley is Curfew. If you’re not home and in bed, you simply faint where you are, and people from the Big Box store go around and pick you up, take you home, tuck you in bed, and then dip into your savings account to pay for this unrequested service–it’s sort of like the phone company.


This is the Town Hall. I had to catch, grow, and steal all sorts of stuff to repair it. The aquarium required me to beg the boy sweetly to catch me many, many fish. I suck at Stardew Valley fishing everywhere except the Ancient Forest pond, where I can reliably catch carp.

My little farmer got her feet under her, built a chicken coop and a barn, and remodeled her house. Then things started to get complicated. It turned out she was supposed to do more than just cultivate, fertilize, plant crops, and then harvest the crops successfully; remodel the community center in town; toil in the mines for gold, coal, jewels, stone, bug guts, and bat wings; try to learn to fish; and tend to an ever-increasing pool of livestock.

cowsSpeaking of which, Stardew Valley livestock all has to be named. After running through all my friends’ names and The Boy’s friends’ names I did the smart thing and simply let the game or The Boy name my animals. So Zack, Zach, and Zach P., Dakota, Jakob, Adam, Woosers, Fija, and Meris live in the chicken/duck coop with Voldimort; and Sally Ann, Bessie, and Ferni live in the barn with Emma, Jeremy, and the King of Rock. All animals are female and apparently parthenogenic in Stardew Valley, since births happen as long as the animals are fed, happy, and there’s barn space. But I digress.

So what with all that my days in Stardew Valley were busy, busy, busy. I fell into bed at 1:50am each morning and slept dreamlessly–at least that’s what I think the black screen meant. Sometimes I had prophetic visions in the black screen, and occasionally my dead grandfather, to whom there is a shrine in the corner behind the greenhouse showed up, but mostly it was just lights out.  And then one morning I got mail. There was a town event! I was invited! There were games! I went to the event, and did very much what I do in real life: I walked around, talked briefly to random people, and tried to figure out how soon I could go home and get back to farming–I had just figured out how to make cheese and was elated at what it was doing for my Stardew Valley bank account.


This is my barn. Note all the goats and the cows. (The brown cow is The King of Rock. I can’t tell the others apart). Note also all the cheese. This is one of the reasons I’ve been making a lot of pizza lately; it’s all I can do with all that cheese. Pro tip: Goat cheese (the square ones) does not make pizza; only cow cheese (the triangular ones) do that.

I discovered that if I talked to the mayor he’d start the Participation part of the festival. I talked. I played, turning in a pretty lackluster performance, again, much like real life. And I discovered myself dumped back on my doorstep, in the dark, with a terse little note informing me that the festival was over, back to work for me. Stardew Valley folks definitely aren’t much for nightlife.

Then things took a definite turn. I got another letter, informing me that I had to “make friends” with everyone in the valley. To do this I had to seek them out every day, speak to them (chest-bumping them usually provoked these conversations), and, wait for it, I had to give them gifts.

What gifts? I wondered? All I had were seashells, jewels, and vegetables. The boy informed me that he’d put in some wine bottles and had won people over by getting them likkered up. That, in fact, was how he had courted and won his bride. He got her drunk and then proposed.

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Gus the Barkeep. Gus has no romance in his soul. All he thinks about is his bar profits.

As a Romantically Challenged Person, I felt my heart sink a bit at the idea that I was supposed to successfully court someone. I decided to hedge my bets. I picked four characters that seemed to be as romantically challenged as I was: Gus the barkeep, Clint the blacksmith, Leroy the homeless guy (his name wasn’t really Leroy, but he looked like our House Leroy, who had been homeless when he came to stay with us, so the homeless dude in Stardew Valley’s name had to be changed for the purposes of my game), and Fabio, a young writer with long flowing locks who lived in a shack on the beach (Fabio wasn’t his name, either, but I got started calling him that and the name stuck). None of these men were ideal perhaps, but they all seemed like they might be desperate enough to accept the overtures of a nice, hardworking, farmer/miner/fisher lady without too much fuss.


And so it began. I put in wine barrels of my own, but quickly discovered that I couldn’t both keep my romantic prospects likkered up and keep my bottom line happy, so I began to experiment with other gifts: diamonds, emeralds, bat wings, horse radishes, and bug guts from the mine (they didn’t care much for the bat wings, horse radishes, or bug guts, and let me know it), random fruits and vegetables from my garden, and occasionally berries, fossils, and mushrooms that I’d scavenged. I tried a stone and a piece of lumber once. My Stardew Valley Romantic Prospects just about gave up on me altogether at that point. Clearly, if I wanted to find True Love, I was going to have to make some financial sacrifices. I gave up on Gus the barkeep about halfway through our romance because every time I chest-bumped him he would only tell me I should come to his bar and have a drink. I soon learned that of all my other prospects, Leroy was the easiest to please. He was tickled pink with just about everything except the bug guts and the rock–even he questioned those.


Leroy in my game. Something else in yours. Doesn’t he look like somebody who would be attracted by a nice, strong farmer with frequent, healthy crops?

I watched the progress of my romances closely, giving gifts and then quickly clicking into my “love” menu to see if my prospects were developing Feelings for me. They were! Leroy the homeless guy, Fabio from the beach, and Clint the blacksmith all were liking me better and better. On the day my “love” meters for all three had been filled up I had a surprise visit from the grocer, who told me that he had stocked bouquets. I was to buy a bouquet and present it to the person with whom I wished to move from friendship to courtship.

Because my IRL courting skills are non-existent, I decided to hedge my bets again. I went to the store and purchased not one but three bouquets. And then I took my heart in my hand and trotted first up to Leroy’s tent, just outside the mines. After all, Leroy had lived with us IRL for eight years–I had hopes that his little Stardew Valley lookalike might feel a little residual affection. Also, he’d been dropping hints about how people misunderstood him for going through their trash, and living in a tent. Since this was Dating all bets were off, but I honestly thought if I had a chance with any of them, the homeless guy would probably be the hungriest, and I had that great garden…

So I ran up to Leroy, grabbed a bouquet of flowers out of my pack, and chest-bumped him. He looked at my flowers, stepped back, said “I don’t want those,” coldly, then turned and went into his tent. I was stunned. I had just been rejected by a dude who lived in a tent and dumpster-dived for his dinners. And this is where things got really, really strange. I ran back to my farm and buried myself in my work, which is pretty much how I respond to such situations IRL. But then the next Stardew Valley day I had finished my chores and, when I would normally go to the mine to stock up on copper and bug guts, discovered that I was too embarrassed go to that corner of the game. That was where Leroy lived, and he had spurned me.

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Fabio to me. Elliot to you. Do not be lured in by the long flowing locks. He spends all his time slouching by the refrigerator or hanging out in his old beach shack. He doesn’t help with the farming except on rare occasions, when he feeds the cows. And then he wants a whole song and dance about how he was so wonderful to do that. Nor does he help with the children. I’m hoping for a divorce court in the next upgrade.

Because I’m not completely gaga I knew this was stupid, so I dropped a bouquet on Clint the blacksmith, who also rejected me, and immediately informed me that he was pining for some blue-haired chick who didn’t even know he was alive. He clearly had no sense of irony. That left Fabio, with his flowing locks and his writerlyness. I chest-bumped him shyly handed him a bouquet. And he accepted! He invited me on a romantic row around the harbor! He began to praise my beautiful farm (I had no illusions about this–as a writer who lived in a beach shack the lure of regular meals was a big part of my charm for him), and even started asking me leading questions about Forever. Fortunately I didn’t need to answer, because I’ve never been good at those kinds of conversations.

And then one night a Mysterious Stranger showed up on the beach and gave me a pendant, which he instructed me should be used like an Engagement Ring IRL. Since my choices had narrowed to one (my other Romantic Options still lived at home with their parents, or in one case, his grandparents), I took a chance and planted the pendant on Fabio, who was riding high because he’d just published his first book (I missed the signing at the library because I forgot and went to the mine and dug coal instead).

And so it was that Fabio and I were married. I think it was a mistake. These days, Fabio occasionally says something lovely to me, but mostly he just slouches in front of the refrigerator, or goes back to his shack on the beach, where he says he “writes,” but since that first book he published before our wedding I’ve seen no evidence of it. Certainly no royalties are showing up in our bank account. When he occasionally helps on the farm he always makes a huge deal out of it, and all he does is feed the animals, who are all on self-feeders, anyway. So, all is not good there.

However, we now have two children, so things are complicated. I suspect my oldest child is “challenged.” When he was a baby he mostly just sat on the floor and rocked. When he got a bit older I’d sometimes discover him outside of the house, running around on the black space above the roof. Once he ran through the wall of the study and disappeared off-screen, doing god knows what. He seems to love me according to the “love” screen, but other than throwing a heart my way the first time he sees me in the morning, there’s nothing. Fabio says he once heard him say “dada,” but I have my doubts. Also, when my son appears on The Boy’s screen he has changed ethnicity. On my screen my child is swarthy, with dark, curly hair, much like me. On The Boy’s screen he’s pasty white with wild red hair. I have no idea what’s up with that.

My second child–a girl (The Boy named her Patrick Senior because he “thought it would be funny” even though my Stardew Valley son is already is already Patrick, as is one of my hens) also does not speak. She doesn’t even walk reliably, even though she’s now seven years old. Unfortunately there are no child therapists in Stardew Valley, and Fabio, who is buried in his busy schedule of slouching by the refrigerator and hanging in his beach shack, is no help at all.

So I did the best thing I could do–I built myself a she-shed down by the fishpond. It’s beautiful (Fabio keeps redecorating our house, and his taste sucks). It’s peaceful. I considered moving down there to get some more Fabio-free space in my kitchen, but then I thought, “The children! I can’t leave the children!” Also, I don’t seem to be able to renovate my she-shed into a babe-barn or portly-palace.

Meanwhile, things with Fabio are deteriorating. When The Boy works on my farm he sometimes gets caught short by 2am, and I return home to discover he’s already in bed with Fabio. I do what I must–I push into bed, too, before I faint on the floor. Fabio is very forbearing; still, though what kind of a husband accepts that without a word? There’s something wrong. I know it.

So far, though, divorce hasn’t come to Stardew Valley, though The Boy’s example has taught me that I, too, can climb into other people’s beds for the night if 2am comes too far from home, and I know them well enough to have been granted access to their bedrooms. So I’ve been sleeping around, but I still go home every morning to greet the children and push Fabio away from the refrigerator long enough to make pizza, which is what my crops are up to these days.

Anyhow, that’s Stardew Valley. I have no idea how it’s going to come out. I just doubled the size of my winery (cool), and have been trying to make friends with the wizard because I need his help to bomb a mine tunnel. I don’t know what’s down the tunnel, but it’s blocked, and I must bomb it. Also, I’m trying to figure out how to win the friendship of the bouncer out at the desert bar, which is behind a store where I buy all my star fruit seeds. So far I’ve only gotten a cool ‘hi’ from him. Maybe I’ll try getting him likkered up and giving him a bouquet…



Out of the Box

It’s been awhile. Lest you think I haven’t been blogging before yesterday, when my post about discernment went up—I have. I’ve been blogging in my head. And I’ve been blogging verbally to The Boy. The Boy is now about 6 and a half feet tall, has a beard, and is closing in on college graduation; I really need to find another name for him. When I’m blogging verbally he sometimes gets called “Bubba,” or “Boobala,” or “Sonny Jim,” or any of a myriad of other names, but never mind. I need to find something other than “The Boy” to call him online, but that’s a worry for another day.

Anyhoo, The Boy and I were talking about some family stuff, and how increasingly hard it is, in the days of Trump, to navigate the minefields we used to fondly call “conversations.” Because here’s the thing: many of my Nearest and Dearest and I see Trump, what Republicanism has become, and social issues from radically different perspectives.

This has been really, really hard on all of us.

Things recently reached a snapping point—the actual cause of the break was something irrelevant to this conversation, but after the echoes of the hard words had faded and I’d had a little time to reflect, The Boy and I were sorting through the schism that, since Sarah Palin was a candidate, really, has become what I fear is a continental split. As he often does, he mentioned something he’d been reading about in his Ed Psych class: Piaget’s theory on how one reconciles one’s view of reality with one’s daily experience. According to Piaget, we tend to do this in one of two ways: We might interpret our experience so it conforms with our view of reality—assimilation—or we might modify our view of reality based on our experiences—accommodation.

So why does this matter? Well, because it turns out that how we process new information has a lot to do with the world in which we live. Because I’m a picture-maker, I’ve made a couple illustrations to help make the difference between the two ways of processing information:

assimilationAssimilators start out with a fixed core belief (that’s the big white box in the middle of the yellow box), and a solid framework into which they fit new information (that’s the light yellow box). Information (all the other colored geometric shapes falling into the box) must fit into the the space between a rigid framework, and around the non-negotiable fixed core beliefs. If the information fits, it gets slotted in. If it doesn’t fit, it’s either pruned to fit within the framework, or simply discarded.

For example, take the age of the earth. An assimilator might start out with the core belief that the Bible is literally historically true in every aspect. This is non-negotiable. Therefore, all information provided by carbon dating, the geologic record, and everything else is discarded (“You can’t trust that carbon dating”) or mutilated (“Dinosaurs co-existed with Adam, Eve, and their descendants”).

For assimilators, core beliefs and the fixed frame work never change in any real way. At the end of life, an assimilators beliefs are pretty much indistinguishable from her beliefs at the time she adopted them. Unshakable core beliefs and a rigid framework characterize the assimilator’s world. This is seen as being faithful to the “faith of one’s fathers.” Of course, assimilation plays into other systems as well–note the insistence from the GOP that a real investigation was not necessary in the Kavanaugh hearings, and is not necessary in the current impeachment hearings. For assimilators that central belief shapes everything, for good or ill.

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Accommodators, on the other hand, start out with no unshakable beliefs (see? no big white box here), and no rigid framework (note the dotted lines around the yellow area). They may have provisional beliefs and a rough outline, but for them, reality evolves as they gain new information and accommodate themselves to integrate it into their worldview. That yellow area is completely mutable; as information comes in it’s examined and, if found credible, added to the box–and the box shifts, changes shape,  and grows. Accommodators are energized by an evolving view of reality.

To go back to our examples, accommodators might start out with a “young earth” view of earth’s history, but as carbon dating and geologic information and archeological information comes in they evaluate it, absorb what they find credible, and say, “You know, biblical authors and interpreters maintain the earth is only 6000 years old, but they also maintain that the sky is a hard shell over a flat earth. Modern science indicates that the earth is much older than that, and the sky is anything but a hard bowl and we know the earth is round. Can we reconcile those two things? If so, how?” And then they figure out some kind of accommodation that allows them to understand their previous belief within the new context.

Accommodators likewise pushed for fuller investigations, more data, and better evaluation in the Kavanaugh hearings–and are doing the same in the current impeachment trial. Rather than starting from the non-negotiable core belief in Kavanaugh’s suitability for the Supreme Court or Trump’s innocence, they started with a number of disparate facts. From them, they constructed a thesis that fit those facts. But, because they are accommodators, they did–and do–not stop there. They continue to push for more facts, for better understanding, and ultimately, for a reality that accommodates all the verifiable facts.

In short, assimilation is about safety, about sticking with the known. Accommodation is about risk-taking, exploring frontiers, and pushing them back.

Which is better? It depends. This isn’t a matter of right or wrong; it’s about the way we understand our world. Where understanding this becomes crucial is when we start looking at how the two ways of understanding reality shape things like economic, environmental and health policy, Supreme Court Justice confirmations, and impeachment votes.

In each case, the GOP has declared themselves unabashed Assimilators–they begin with an unshakable conviction–if you work hard enough you can get rich; the environment is tough; it can take whatever we throw at it; if you live right you won’t get too sick; Brett Kavanaugh should be confirmed; Donald Trump should be acquitted in the Senate. In each, facts have been deemed either irrelevant or part of a liberal conspiracy.

Does this matter? Yes, I think it matters a lot. I find the idea of declaring truth in the absence of reliable evidence repugnant. Why? Because declaring reality in the absence of evidence does not work. Reality is discovered by exploration, not declared by fiat.
And yet we are dealing with a a President, a Senate, and a substantial number of fellow citizens who seem perfectly fine with declaring reality in all sorts of areas. We’ve seen the CDC muzzled both financially and linguistically–there are certain words the CDC has been forbidden to use, words like “fetus,” “abortion,” and so on. We have seen environmental regulations gutted in favor of industry, and the gutting defended by a simple, unsuupported denial. We have seen the science wing of the government decimated. We have seen social and economic policy become ever more punitive for those at the bottom.

The nation is being run by assimilators, and assimilators’ rigid worldview and fixed core beliefs mean that there’s an awful lot of information simply being discarded. But here’s the thing: Discarding, suppressing, or massaging facts to fit comfortably into one’s rigid world view does not affect the laws of cause and effect. Our financial structures are increasingly forcing many of us down, rather than up the financial ladder. Pollutants still sicken and kill too many people. Sometimes even really good people get terribly, terribly sick. The world continues to warm. No amount of denial will change Trump’s past actions. No amount of shouting made Brett Kavanaugh a more palatable nominee.

So why aren’t we all accommodators? Well, accommodation may be exciting, and it might create a “sky’s the limit’ world, but it can also be scary. The assimilators’ box might be restrictive, but it’s also pretty supportive. It can be nice to have “filled your box.” You can stop exploring, evaluating, learning, and adjusting to meet a reality in flux. You can snuggle down on your box and look smugly out at all of the accommodators, still struggling to sort out what they find worthy of belief, let alone build it into any kind of edifice. You have control. Or at least you think you do.

The reality seems to be that we live in an expanding universe. Knowledge is never complete. There is always another horizon, another challenge to meet. In the end, assimilation fails because it rejects new information. By clinging to discredited theories and outdated beliefs, assimilators end up living in tiny black boxes, set into the midst of an amazing, vibrant, ever-expanding world. And they don’t even know what they’re missing.

Wise as Serpents…

wiseasserpentsAnybody who visits my Facebook page knows that I tend to lean toward progressive ideals. For those who ask me why (as opposed to those who just tell me I’m unrealistic and walk away), here’s the reason: I tend to lean progressive because, as Stephen Colbert once put it, “…reality has a well-known liberal bias.

For a long time I subscribed to the easy, common canard that “all politicians are dirty,” and that “you can’t get into high office without having made too many compromises to be able to do anything good.” I couched my apathy as a principled stand. Really it was laziness. It took 9/11 to shock me out of that.

Like everybody, I was terrified. But as the days went on I started listening to what people were saying–the anger, the hatred, the racism, and the religious bigotry being expressed in the name of patriotism. And inside me, something woke up. “This is as dangerous as those hijacked planes,” it said. I watched liberties being eroded in the name of national security. I watched politicians posturing about protecting America when what they were actually advocating seemed to be something that would not keep us safer. And that little part of me got a shot of espresso and started yelling.

And then came the 2008 election, and everybody was talking about “narratives.” Which candidate had the better story? John McCain was a war hero and a prisoner of war who had undergone torture for principles he held dear. Sarah Palin was a no-nonsense soccer mom/governer from a part of America that seems remote and unknowable to many of us. She had a special needs son. She had “stood up to Big Oil.” There was talk of her knowing how to shoot and field dress a deer. There was Joe Biden, who had lost his young family years before, who came from a working-class family, and who was prone to speaking his mind at inconvenient moments. And then there was Barack Obama.

Suddenly stories were everywhere. He was born in Hawaii. He was born in Kenya. He was a Muslim. He went to a Christian church. He was a secret addict. He disrespected the flag. He was talking not about the ugliness of politics, but about hope, and about how, if we all worked together, we could change the things that plagued us.

I don’t remember how I first happened across his campaign website. What I do remember is seeing the “fact-checker” tab. I clicked, and a scan of a Hawaiian birth certificate opened up. I think that was the moment I first considered registering to vote. I had found a candidate who not only trusted me with a narrative as his team presented them, but with the documents from which I could write his narrative for myself.

Of course, I realized that a “fact-checker” associated with a campaign website was far from an unbiased source–if nothing else, “facts” obtained that way needed to be verified. So I started digging, and I discovered a whole world of information-verification sites. The ones I returned to time and again were the sites that not only discussed facts and “proved” or “disproved” them, but the sites that showed their work–the ones that linked back to original documents and clips. I started clicking. And clicking. And clicking.

I started listening to political events, news, and commentary with my critic’s ear. I learned to evaluate what I was hearing based on the information I had gleaned. What I found was that, while all politicians occasionally gave out false information, some tended to hew far more closely to facts than others. I could look at the source documents, discover the truth. I could even chart it if I wanted.  It was–and is–possible to distinguish fact from spin.

I ended up voting not for a party, but for the candidate who had changed the way I saw politics–who had challenged me to not just dismiss the whole process, but to do the hard, important work of digging for facts. I voted for him because through following his campaign I had become a better, more informed person.

What I learned in that election was discernment–the skill of listening with an open mind, then seeking out information from a wide variety of sources–and then evaluating that information based on original information. I listened. I researched. And then I wrote my own narrative. I became a more discerning, active citizen. I also became someone with whom many in my family felt acutely uncomfortable.

For reasons that will be obvious to anyone who knows us, Sarah Palin’s “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “commonsense,” rhetoric was very attractive to many of them. “She’s the real deal,” one sister told me excitedly. I had just finished reading a piece about the time she had spent in Wasilla city government. The piece raised some serious questions about her qualifications for me. “Are you sure?” I asked. My sister was sure. Gun-toting, smart-mouth, “my common sense is as good as your education,” boot-strapping Sarah Palin was “the real deal.”

And then came the interviews, and the news stories, and the revelation that no matter how “real” Ms. Palin might be, and how no matter how good she might be at dog-whistle politics, she was woefully unprepared to run a nation. Perhaps naively, I expected my family’s opinion about her to shift a bit. I was wrong.

And that was when I learned a new and terrifying thing–far too many people had adopted Sarah Palin’s attitude toward basing opinions on verifiable fact. Part of it, of course, was that Sarah Palin was very, very good at whipping up a crowd with a grievance–or who might, after listening to her for a bit, discover that they had a grievance. A whole new party sprang up–the Tea Party, who all too often regarded facts as not just unnecessary, but positively anti-American.

My family and I never really bounced back from that. The lure of believing that we all get what we deserve if we work hard enough for it was too powerful. For me, believing that was impossible not because I was somehow immune to the lure of that belief, but because I had bitten by the research bug. I simply could no longer take political spin at face value. There was simply too much evidence showing that the playing field in America was slanted in favor of the wealthy, white, and male–and had been for a very long time.

My family and I weren’t the only people who faced that conflict. Watching the Kavanaugh hearings and the GOP position on the impeachment provided proof, if any more was needed, that an entire political party seems to have decided that facts are indeed a liberal plot, and that the fewer of them we have to deal with the better off we will all be. Listening to President Trump declare himself “exonerated” when the Mueller report said no such thing was like Sarah Palin declaring herself “exonerated” when the investigation in Alaska regarding her improper use of influence resulted in no such finding.

Both Palin and Trump have had the distinction–if we can call it that–of being credited with Politifact’s “Lie of the Year.” In the past eleven years (2009-2019), the honor has gone to the conservative, often-GOP end of the spectrum nine of eleven times, and to Donald Trump himself three times. We live in a world where demanding facts to back up assertions has come to be seen as a tool of the “liberal elite.” Being wrong about something–even disastrously wrong–has become irrelevant, if not an actual badge of honor. How did we get here? It’s not really hard to see.

There is a faction of America that, when faced with difficult questions, seeks not to dig for answers, but brushes those questions off with, “Well, I guess that’s just where faith comes in.” It’s a belief system that relies heavily on avoiding the responsibility of taking action by talking about “forgiving,” and “not judging,” and “turning the other cheek.”

Those are all real quotes. What’s missing from that philosophy, though, is a whole other set of quotes about the importance of discernment–the responsibility we have to do the hard work of equipping ourselves to make responsible, ethical, informed decisions. In the spirit of finding a starting point, I googled, “What does the Bible say about discernment?” and went to the open-source online Bible for a list of quotes.  Full disclosure here–I don’t believe that reading the Bible literally is always a great guide to behavior, but many people do. If you do, I’m speaking your language here.

The sheer number of quotes is impressive, but this is just a starting point. If you believe in the Bible as a guide to right action, it might be interesting to search out these references as well as those from other indexing sources,  look at each situation’s historical and social contexts, and then devote a little time to examining how discernment factors into your own life.

A bit back I referenced verses about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and accepting things on faith. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of such things. I would only suggest that those things only really have value in the light of discernment. Forgiveness only has meaning if we understand that a wrong has been done. Accepting things on faith only has meaning if we have taken the time to use our big, beautiful brains to push the boundaries of our knowledge to their limits. Discernment means that we never, ever, use forgiveness and love and faith as a substitute for doing the hard, necessary work of seeking out good information from reputable sources–and that we require the people making decisions on our behalf to provide us with the facts and information we need to do that.

We can’t fool Mother Nature. Reality doesn’t care what you believe. The only real question for each of us is, “How can I write the truest narrative?” In the end, the truth is what sets us free.

The Velveteen Building


We come to town in the fall, refugees from a moldy house. I have never wanted to live in Milton Freewater, but the mold has broken me. I no longer seek my dream home, just a good roof and sound pipes. Milton Freewater is what we can afford. I spend one day looking at houses. At the end of the day I make an offer. The house isn’t perfect, but it is good enough. And dry. Very, very dry.

The transition has a few bumps. Escrow is long. We stay in a motel for a while. Then we stay with my mother. I feel lost between two worlds. I try to get a post office box in Milton Freewater so I can give an address to my clients. Since I do not yet officially live in our new house the post office makes me get a note from my mother before they’ll give me one. I feel obscurely shamed. Am I not responsible enough to rent a box without a cosigner? I ask where I should register Alex for school. No one knows. “Call the bus driver,” someone suggests. “He’ll know. He knows all about that.” In Milton Freewater, the bus driver has a lot of pull, I think. I track him down at the district office. And so it is that tired, confused, angry, sick, and beaten, we finally find our way to Freewater Elementary School. We get up early on Alex’s first day at Freewater Elementary. Mrs. Ambler meets us at the office and trots us down a long, dark tunnel of a hallway. Peppy, I think. That’s the word for her. Peppy. I wonder if I can like a peppy person. Pipes run along the ceiling. Student art lines the walls. The floor is dark green tile, exactly like the bathroom tile in the school where I started first grade.

vb000_0013Mrs. Ambler pushes open a door at the end of the hall and we step out into one of those odd spaces that result when buildings grow like Topsy. Eaves jut. Posts occur at random. Cyclone fencing covers a window on the left. Gangs, I think. My heart sinks. “This way,” says peppy Mrs. Ambler. I jump and turn—and find myself facing blue double doors set deep into an old red brick building. It’s a real school, I think. I didn’t know such things still existed.

Mrs. Ambler pulls open the door and for the first time we step into Freewater Elementary School’s oldest building. High ceilings are nearly lost  in  the  distance. Blue staircases zigzag up into deep shadows on both sides of the wide central staircase. Children shout on the playground outside.

vb100_0180“The bathrooms are here,” says Mrs. Ambler as she double-times across the open central area. I sneak a quick look as I trot after her. They’re real school bathrooms, I think.

“Just over here,” says Mrs. Ambler. “This is your new room, Alex.” She holds the door open. Alex sidles past her. Art covers the walls. A squashy sofa slumps in one corner. Two elderly IBMs sit on tables behind it. Big windows flood the classroom with autumn sunshine. Students play tether ball and hopscotch on the paved schoolyard. A kickball game rages on the field beyond.

Mrs. Ambler shows Alex to his new desk, and then through a doorway just to the right of the door we came in. “This is where you’ll store your coat and backpack,” she says.

“What backpack?” I wonder. Alex’s is in a landfill somewhere in Portland, probably incubating mold. I stick my head around the corner. Brass coat hooks mounted on blue boards line the walls. Alex’s school has a real cloakroom. I feel like I have come home.

100_0248Real doors, real bathrooms, real cloakroom. Somehow, in all the pain and loss and craziness our lives have become, we have been given a real school. All through that day as I search for a coffee shop with Internet access, discover Espresso in Motion, and work out a deal with the owner so I can use a table as a temporary office, that thought keeps me going. Reality is a funny thing. Alex’s school in Portland was new the year he started kindergarten. Construction materials lurked in corners. Painter’s tape still framed some of the doorways. At the time it seemed bright, fresh, and hygienic. I volunteered regularly. The staff and I were on good terms. And yet, we remained human shadow puppets to each other, cordial strangers who shared Alex’s days.

vb100_0164In spite of the beautiful school, Alex lived for vacations. He dragged himself around in the mornings, begging to be allowed to stay home. His teacher said he wasn’t “engaged.” I asked about more challenging classes or programs. “Demographics,” they said. “All our money goes into ‘No Child Left Behind’ programs. There’s just no money to do anything for the kids at the other end of the spectrum. You’ll need to do that at home.”

The classroom was the sacred unit; thirty demographic units, no matter what their experience, skills, or aptitudes, trudged along at a pace guaranteed to Leave No Unit Behind. Perhaps it was the very newness, brightness, and above all, rightness of the school that doomed us. Instead of being a person, Alex became a blip on a chart. Maybe in the end the school was not real to us because we were not real to it.

I expect Alex to have some cvb100_0182atching up to do: New school, new school district, new way of doing things. I am not disappointed. Things are different at Freewater Elementary School. Skill levels, not classrooms, are the sacred unit in key areas. Testing happens. “I think I failed a test today, Mom,” Alex says as we make the drive from Milton Freewater to my mother’s house after his first day of school. “I’ve never failed a test before.”

I glance at him. He doesn’t seem unduly concerned; he is busy sorting through a sheaf of cards. “What are those?” I ask.

“Cards the kids made welcoming me to school. They like me, Mom.” His voice has a lilt I haven’t heard in a long time. “They wanted to play with me at recess. I’m so glad we came here.” He goes back to his cards.

Even as my heart lifts at his pleasure in being liked, I worry about the test. Alex is right; he has never failed one before. Even though I expected gaps, it bothers me. Does this prove I am a bad mother? Have I not seen to it that my child knows what he must to survive life in this new place? The thought that the staff might regard us as more to be pitied than censured doesn’t help.

vb100_0307All through that autumn Alex plays catch-up. He gets into trouble for breaking bizarre and arcane rules. Every morning and evening we drive through the Umatilla River Valley and over the highlands past tiny towns tucked under leafy green canopies, then dip down into Milton Freewater. And on those drives, as the sun turns the sky peach, pearl, and azure and the stubble fields to white gold, we talk as we haven’t had time to talk for a long time. We take to leaving the highway and exploring towns visible beyond the fields, half-hidden in trees. I discover that Freewater Elementary isn’t the only pocket of the past to escape the progress transforming more affluent parts of the state. There is this to be said for poverty: Sometimes it helps us preserve the past, simply because we can’t afford anything else. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

vb100_0161In December we finally move into our new house. My first call is to the local cable company, for internet hook-up. I work at home, instead of at Espresso in Motion. The drives through the fields end. Alex sleeps later. He starts dropping teachers’ names  into the conversation. “She likes me,” he says. Or, “He uses kind words.” Or, “She yelled at me. She never did before.” We talk about how every community has rules, and everybody has bad days. “Not Mrs. Ambler,” Alex says. “She never has bad days.”

“I’m here to tell you, she has bad days,” I say, a little testily. “Everybody does. I have bad days.” “I know you do, but she doesn’t,” he says stoutly. “She loves coffee, and she never has a bad day as long as she has her coffee.”

The before-school kickball game is a powerful lure. He takes to getting himself out of bed, showered, and dressed before I call him. When it’s time to leave he is first out the door.

vb100_0274I think about the days in Portland, when getting him to school was a struggle. Test scores and arcane rules notwithstanding, something at Freewater Elementary has engaged him. Surely it won’t last, I think. Mrs. Ambler will give up coffee, and we’ll be right back where we started.

But it does last.

In March, Alex moves up in his reading and math groups. He gets scholastic awards. I take pictures at the assembly, struggling to focus the camera through proud, embarrassing, tears. Alex has been forced to give up everything he knows and start a new life in a new place—and he has done it. I look around at the shabby cafeteria. I watch the teachers handing out homemade certificates, and think, This is what a real school should be. I think about the difference between having a child who slogs through his days, lonely and bored, and having a child who beats me to the car each day and comes home bursting with some new bit of knowledge. I think of cloakrooms, and real bathrooms, and teachers who find my child as real as I find Milton Freewater Elementary School’s beautiful old building.

Something very right has happened, and if arcane rules and preternaturally nice teachers are a part of it, then, by golly, I will stand behind them. I think about the deep honesty, wisdom and courage required to move beyond the politically correct platitudes about how we are all created equal to the simple reality that, when it comes to learning, we are not all equal. Our old school enforced uniformity, setting the bar at the lowest common denominator. Milton Freewater Elementary School acknowledges that children are individuals and they do not all learn the same way—and it has built a system that works, if not for every child, at least for mine.

vb100_0139Maybe that kind of knowing isn’t as easy in a place where everything is new and fresh and works without jiggling wires, a place where folded papers don’t have to be shoved under desk legs to keep them from tipping, a place where there are no hearts scratched deep into desks, with long-ago years and initials inscribed in them.

Maybe in a new building, where everything is uniform, where all rooms are square and all bathroom stall doors lock, it’s possible to see people that way, too—as blips on charts in a world where all members of every group except the one to which we belong look alike. Maybe we only become real as we acquire a few dents, as we learn to make the accommodations that life thrusts upon us. Our dents allow us to become something more than just what we are; our dents make us who we are.

I always disliked The Velveteen Rabbit. Now I find myself thinking that there might be something to the idea that things only become real when they have been loved and used enough to be shabby.

vb100_0286Spring arrives, and our new neighborhood sprouts tulips, daffodils, and children. Alex abandons his PlayStation in favor of the yard. I open the windows and listen to children screaming and laughing as they play Keep Away, Dodge Ball, Kick Ball, and Tag. I think of Portland, where I couldn’t let Alex go outside because children were being stolen, raped, and murdered. He spent his days lying on his stomach, exercising his thumbs. Now he runs and screams with everyone else. The PlayStation stays off for days at a time.

On the way home from school one spring day, Alex says, “Mom, I want to show you the cemetery.”

“Ok-a-a-a-y,” I answer. “Why?”

vbcemetery_0021“We’ve adopted it,” he tells me. “I want to show you my grave. I’m cleaning it up and weeding it. It’s a little girl. Turn here.”

I turn, then turn again, and again, and find myself easing the car up a narrow track. Tall grasses brush the car doors. A wrought-iron arch stands at the top of the hill. “Pioneer Cemetery,” it reads.

Alex leads me over to “his” grave, tells me about the child who is buried there, then shows me the many tombstones for babies and children, talking all the while about hard times, and high child mortality. I listen, and see something in him I have never seen before. He is  interested.  He  cares.  He feels sad at all the young burials. He wants to  learn more. Somehow in the last few months he has developed a sense not only of his present, but of the past.

“We’re going to be having a dedication next week,” he finishes. “Can you come?”

VBcemeteryThe day of the dedication dawns crisp and clear. The children sing of beautiful spacious skies, and amber waves of grain. Wheat grows thick and green in the field beside the cemetery. I look out over the green, hazy valley, and listen to the bees drunk on spring, and think of the children coming here each year to honor the past. I look at the thick wheat. It’s going to be a good harvest, I think. A uniformed man carries the stars and stripes across the field. A high school girl plays Taps on a cornet. The high, sweet notes soar above us with the meadowlarks. The children sing again.

This is what America is for, I think. Just this. The abundance of the land, honoring those who lived here before us, nurturing the promise of the future. This is right. This is very, very right.

We came to Milton Freewater against our will, angry, hurt, lost, and confused. And like a wise old lady, Freewater Elementary School welcomed us, comforted us with cloakrooms and kickball, eased our way into our new life, gave us room and time to heal, and helped us find our place.


Postscript: Our first year in Milton Freewater was the old Freewater Elementary School building’s last year. The next autumn, the building was demolished. Dang it.


Originally published as “The Velveteen Building,” in Benchmarks: A Single Mother’s Illustrated Journal, by Bodie Parkhurst.


Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo on 12-24-15 at 12.10 PM #2a

What’s on my mind? Thanksgiving–what else? So here’s my list. I am thankful for:

1. My son. He is the reason I get up each morning. Having him was the single best thing I’ve done in my life.

2. My house, in which all vital things work. Not perfectly. I am not Pollyanna, but we are warm. We are dry. We have no visible holes in the floor or the ceiling. We can work. Vermin, if present, are keeping a low profile.

3. My work. I have work I love, and enough of it (at least until I get my Computer Situation resolved). And that’s moving along nicely. I’m thankful for that.

4. Friends who are true friends, and family who are true family. If my life has taught me anything, it’s the value of those relationships that support us through hard times–through years of depression, though family collapse, through the slow, painful process of learning to re-define what it means to be a friend, or a family, through mold, through the recession, through cancer, and I have every confidence through the Trump presidency. Friends and family (and you all know who you are), you are the people who have held me and mine up when we were faltering. Thank you. Know that we will do the same for you. That’s what it means to be friends and family.

5. Laughter and Grandpa. The hardest lesson my Grandpa taught me was how to laugh in the face of devastation. Laughter has been the saving of me, just as Grandpa was the saving of me for a long time. Just as he still is. It’s been years, Grandpa. I still think of you every day. I still miss you every day, and I am still learning from the things you taught me. I wish you hadn’t had to go so soon, but know that in a deep sense you are with me still. And I still miss you. Thank you for teaching me about uncritical, unconditional love. My son and his friends and my students say “thank you,” too.

6. Facebook. For all of you who are my “Facebook friends,” know that you are important to me. Some of us nod in passing. Some of us strike up conversations, and sit and chat awhile. We don’t fight, because I don’t fight on Facebook, and my Facebook friends don’t, either. Sometimes we have difficult conversations, but you’re teaching me how to do that without turning into a difficult person. You remind me every day that the world is full of people who may not be “picking up what I’m laying down,” as the saying goes. And that that’s just fine. We can care about each other, even if we don’t see things in the same way.

7. Whoever or whatever it is in the universe who looks out for us, and who can and will respond when we need it most. We might have different names for this presence. We might approach it in different ways. But I, for one, have no doubt that it exists. There have been too many times in my life when, in moments of deep need, the exact necessary thing arrived from a completely unexpected quarter.

8. Finally, I’m grateful to every one of you who does not wait for that universal presence to fix things, but instead reaches out to fix the things around you that you can see need fixing not because you can or should fix everything, but because we are all here, and the need is all here, and if none of us can do everything, it is equally true that all of us can do something. And many of you do. Thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Cooking on Saturday


“Iris,” by Bodie Parkhurst. Poster available in a variety of styles and sizes.

Most Saturdays I don’t cook. Come to that, most Sundays through Fridays I don’t cook, either, which is both sad and strange, because as a Sweet Young Thing I loved cooking. But then I hit the Romantic Years, and spent them mostly trying to find my way to men’s hearts by way of their stomachs, a process my healthcare friends now assure me is not Medically Sound. By the time that particular process had run its natural course my love of cooking had taken a sharp left hook to the jaw and collapsed to the mat. And that’s pretty much where it has remained, except for the odd moments where it has drifted up into the a state approximating consciousness. This never happens at convenient or predicable times. Take, for example, that one Saturday.

There was little or no reason to try to cook. The Boy was off at a track meet far, far away. I had been putting off grocery shopping for a month, and supplies were at historic lows. I wasn’t hungry. I actually wanted to be writing on one of several book projects, or designing baby stuff for my CafePress store, or even just lying on the couch watching a horror flick. It was not the day for cooking. And so of course this was precisely the day that my Love of Cooking sat up, shook its head, gingerly massaged its swollen jaw, and asked brightly, “So, what’re we making today?”

So there I am, peering into empty cupboards and drawers, muttering to myself, checking expired “sell by” dates, and sniffing suspiciously. In the end, this is what I came up with.  And by golly, was it was good. It was so good, in fact, that my son, who is familiar with my cooking history, said, “There’s no way you made this from scratch, Mom. It tastes too good. It had to come out of a box.”

“I did, too, make it from scratch!” I shot back, insulted. “It’s not out of a box. It’s out of two boxes and a plastic tub!” Which it is. Here are the instructions:

  1. Take one Krusteaz Crumb Cake mix and mix the batter according to the instructions.
  2. Look in your “wierd stuff” drawer and discover a box of butterscotch pudding mix from 2008 hiding at the back. (I really don’t know if the expired status of the pudding mix makes a difference. I’m including it, just in case.) Pull it out, realize there is no milk, and pour it into the Krusteaz mix batter instead. Discover that now the batter is approximately the texture of clay.
  3. Consider adding sour cream. Check the refrigerator and discover the sour cream is all gone except for one tablespoon in the bottom of the container, which has sprouted a rich and verdant crop of mold. Shudder, close the container, and shove it to the back of the refrigerator. (This is called Dealing With It Later, or Cleaning the Refrigerator in our house.)
  4. Look at the cake batter again, pour far too much oil into a cake pan, and half-heartedly spread half of the batter (which now has many of the tensile qualities of asphalt) into the oil.
  5. Realize that this just isn’t going to work, and run some more water into the batter remaining in the bowl. How much water is anybody’s guess. Just stick the bowl under the faucet and turn the water on and keep stirring until it looks more like cake batter.
  6. Consider scraping the too-thick batter in the pan back into the now-thinner batter. Decide it’s just not worth the trouble.
  7. Go back to the refrigerator and stand with the door open while you consider your options. Shove the sour cream container a little further out of sight behind the expired bottle of pickle juice.
  8. Discover a small tub of caramel apple dip from last Halloween lurking in the crisper drawer under a petrified orange.
  9. Take a spoon and add dollops of caramel dip to the top of the batter in the pan. You’ll have to scrape it off with your finger, so there’s the added benefit of getting to lick the caramel off your finger between globs.
  10. Take the crumb topping from the Krusteaz mix and sprinkle half of it over the thick batter and the caramel globs.
  11. Realize you’ve really got a mess here.
  12. Drop the remaining batter on top of the thick batter, the caramel globs, and the crumb topping.
  13. Drop on more caramel globs, since it’s hopeless anyway.
  14. Sprinkle on the rest of the crumb topping from the Krusteaz mix. Your crumb cake should now look like a cross between a garden badly rototilled too soon after a rainstorm and a gravel road.
  15. Put the mess into the oven and bake it for fifteen minutes more than the Krusteaz box recommends. (It’ll still feel raw, but probably it’s all that caramel).
  16. Take it out and eat it hot and slathered with butter, if you don’t care about your arteries, hips, waist, or heart.
  17. Listen in surprise as the House Leroy raves, and your son refuses to believe that you actually made this, from scratch, or scratch-ish.
  18. Know in your heart that the secret to this recipe is that there is no such thing as too much caramel.



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