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Building Something Better


I know, I know, if I want people to buy my books I’m not supposed to post them in their entirety. But I’m doing it with this one. The reason is simple. When I first wrote about Harriet and Betsy I was struggling for survival. I didn’t intend this to be anything deep or profound. But it turned out to be.

I never dreamed that I would be part of a national experience like this–just about every single person in America has become Harriet. We all carpool in Betsy–and the wheels have come off in no uncertain terms.

I’m not a doctor. I’m not a medical person. I’m just someone who has survived more life breakdowns than anybody wants to. I have a certain amount of expertise in rebuilding. So what did I learn? I learned that there are two ways to repair a car. The first is to simply replace broken parts and bring it back to what it was before the wheels fell off.

The second way is to take a step back, look at the car, and remember not what this car was before it broke, but the car you used to dream about. Then do the hard work to not repair the car, but turn this crisis–this opportunity–into some new, something different, something better.

And so, without further ado, may I present Harriet and Betsy. May they be as helpful–and thought-provoking–to you as they have been to me over the years. For those who want a beautiful, designed copy, it’s available for sale on Amazon in both  childrens’ and  adult, annotated versions (that’s what I’m posting here). But I suspect that the people I’m really posting this for are the people who don’t have money to spend on books right now. So this is my gift, to all of us. Enjoy it. Pass it on. If you’d include my name somewhere I’d appreciate it, but I’m not going to send the book cops after you if you don’t. So here’s to our dreams, and to getting our lives hammered into something better soon.

Building Something Better

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Meet Harriet. She’s from a farm in Oregon. Meet Betsy. She’s from a factory in Detroit. The years have been hard on Betsy. When I first met Harriet and Betsy I had a good job with great benefits. My bills were paid. I lived in a pretty apartment. I wore elegant clothes. I dated a man I hoped to marry. And one night every week I drove from Los Angeles to Claremont, sat in an icy cold office, and tried to figure out why I wanted to die. Drawing gave me peace, so in the evenings I sat in my pretty apartment with the cool breeze lifting the curtains and the lamps lit, and I wrote about Harriet, Betsy, Bud, and Rex, the junk yard dog. somethingbetterbodyadults-5

Harriet writes to the factory. I didn’t mean anything by it—I just wanted to be happy for a little while, and drawing Betsy helped. I’m a farm kid and a summa cum laude graduate of the “beat it to fit and paint it to match” school of mechanical design, so I made my story about that. It wasn’t great literature, but it beat the heck out of standing in my pretty peach and green bathroom wondering why my eyes looked so old and tired, and why I lived trapped behind them. I sent Betsy off to a publisher and got back a very nice rejection letter. I stuck Betsy into the closet and forgot about her. Then my life broke, and I learned what every person in the worlds knows: a broken life is a kind of death. In my case, a chance revelation destroyed family relationships I had thought would last forever.

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The factory writes back (sort of). My world changed in an instant. Rather than answer the hard questions my father said I had a “weak grip on reality,” and told his class at  church that “the girls are mad and making outrageous accusations because they think we made them work too hard.” My brother said, “I can’t have a relationship with anyone who believes something like that about my dad.” Never mind that the information had come from Dad himself. A sister said, “She didn’t have it any worse than the rest of us. She’s just trying to get attention.” The first part of that was right—I doubt if I did have it worse than anyone else, but that was no comfort. somethingbetterbodyadults-9

The junk yard has lots of parts. “Yup,” says Bud the junk man. “We can make’er look like new.” Harriet thinks.” I don’t want her to look like new,” she says at last. “I want her to look better.” She chooses some other parts. My parents had taught me that no one outside of the family was to be trusted. And now my family was stripped away. I lived second to second. “Now I’ll open my eyes. Now I’ll roll on my side. Now I’ll swing my feet to the floor. Now I’ll sit up. Now I’ll stand. Now I’ll take a step. Now I’ll take another. Now I’ll take another…” I forgot my grandfather’s face. But somehow, I kept taking those steps, one by one. I survived. I rebuilt, and one day I looked up and realized that the sun shone warm on my hair. It had been a very long time. Betsy and I hit the road again, a little less boldly than before. somethingbetterbodyadults-111

Then she makes them fit. We hit the road, but before long Betsy’s engine developed a new knock. My supervisor at work left and was replaced with a screamer. I discovered that the person I hoped to marry didn’t want to marry me. Then I discovered that I was pregnant. In the end, I found myself alone with a newborn baby. Trying to be a mother, manage a career, and keep up a house on my own was hard, but I worked with the life I had built because I was too tired and too scared to change it—and because it still sort of worked. It was only a matter of time, of course, before Betsy died again, flogged to death on the freeway. I had no car, no job, and enough money in the bank to pay the rent, which was due, or the bills, which were also due, or fix Betsy. I looked at my sleeping child that bleak afternoon and felt shame. He deserved better. He deserved security. He deserved a tranquil mother. He deserved not to be stranded on the damned freeway at rush hour. I finally admitted that Betsy was really, really broken. somethingbetterbodyadults-13

Harriet paints Betsy. I swallowed my pride, picked up the phone, and did the thing I had sworn I would never do. I called my family—my angry, dangerous family—and asked for help. I went to the junk yard for my son. It was full of things discarded because they hurt too much to keep, because they didn’t work anymore, because someone else decided they were worthless, because I just couldn’t get them to fit into the life I built—the one, incidentally, that was lying on the floor in pieces around me at that very moment. I had thrown most of that stuff away for good reason. And now I was back, poking around in the broken things, the outgrown things, the rusty things. Sharp edges, broken glass, blood on seats. I didn’t want to be there, but my old life was gone, and it wasn’t coming back. I needed to build a new one, and all I had to work with were things I had discarded in the junk yard of my past. My junk yard was terrifying. It demanded a strong heart, and stronger stomach. I didn’t see its infinite possibility for a long time. somethingbetterbodyadults-15

Then she cleans up. What I saw was failure. I lay awake at night with my stomach in knots, knowing that if I’d just tried a little harder, been a little smarter, lived a little more frugally, taken better care of myself, been more practical, more—oh all right—been somebody else—I’d have been fine. I wouldn’t have had to ask my family for help. The shame was deep, and corroding. Would you have the nerve to pursue your dreams if it meant losing your house, your job, your pride, your spouse, and your security? No one except William Blake, who opted to Starve for his Art, chooses a broken life. I didn’t. But when my life was spread all over the garage in jagged, greasy rusty pieces it finally occurred to me that I could afford to dream. After all, things couldn’t get much worse. At last I realized that a broken down life is more than a disaster—it is also a priceless opportunity. somethingbetterbodyadults-17

She takes Betsy’s picture and sends it to the factory. I went to the junk yard for my son. The wrecks in my junk yard made my bones hurt just to look at them. Picking through my past wasn’t fun. I acquired new cuts and bruises. I wouldn’t have chosen my junk yard, but it was what I had—and in the end, it was enough. I took my love of drawing (“You’ll never make a living at art”) my love of writing (“What will you do with it?”) and my commitment to raising my son (“You don’t have a choice—you have to put him into day care”) and I  got Betsy rolling again, this time with a baby seat buckled in the back. It wasn’t easy. I scraped. I scrimped. I got  scared in the middle of the night. I was still beating the heck out of some of the pieces. But I was getting closer. somethingbetterbodyadults-16

The factory writes back. I started working on frills—buying a home rather than renting a house, getting health insurance. We started shopping for a puppy, and saving for Disneyland. And then the bottom dropped out of the economy, and several of my long-standing clients went very, very quiet. Several others said they were “scaling back.” That knock is back in Betsy’s engine. Times are hard, and getting harder. The other day I put my head down on my computer keyboard and cried. Betsy is falling apart around me again, just when I thought I had her all put together, painted, and running like a dream. I hate it. But I have been here before. I have the courage to tinker, even tear her down to the tires and head back to the junk yard if I need to, and in the end, she will not be “like new,” but better. somethingbetterbodyadults-21

Harriet reads Betsy the letter. Then she puts on her new hat and some dangly earrings, and takes Betsy out for premium gas and hot dogs. And now, before you close the book on Harriet and Betsy, do me a favor—take a minute and look at the illustrations of Harriet—not Betsy— in order.  See? Harriet fixes Betsy up, true—but in the process she changes herself into somebody brave, somebody clever, somebody creative, somebody handy, somebody better. That’s the gift of a broken life. My life is breaking, but I have been here before. Rebuilding my life in dark, terrible, times changed—and changes—me. Rebuilding your life in dark times will change you. It won’t be easy, but one day you will look around and realize you’re simply not the same person you were. You will be different. You can be better. Don’t leave the discarded bits of your life lying around cluttering up your house and garage—take them to the junk yard. But keep track of them—you may need them later. It’s funny what we know without knowing it—when I first wrote about Betsy and Harriet I intended nothing more  than a children’s story. I didn’t  mean for them to turn into a metaphor, let alone one that held the secret to not only surviving hard times, but embracing them for the opportunities they offer. I didn’t mean for it to happen—but  that   doesn’t make Betsy and Harriet’s truth any less valid. My life broke, over and over. Each time, I thought I would die. And facing that failure has set me free. Each time, I have rebuilt better, stronger, happier. And now my life is breaking again. But I have been here before. This is my opportunity to dream. If you life is breaking, too, remember Harriet. Go see Bud. Be careful around the rusty metal. Pat Rex. Watch out for his teeth. Get out your blowtorch and the paint. And when you’ve got Betsy up and running again—and you will—put on a new hat and maybe some dangly earrings. Then go out for premium gas and hot dogs.

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Buy the book


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Here’s part of how I said “good bye” to Leroy.

When The Boy and I first moved to Milton Freewater we came under duress; our home in Portland had flooded and the landlord chose to do nothing–for a month. We lost everything, including our health. We came here because houses were cheap and the weather was dry. We came to start again.

But a funny thing happened. We acquired our House Leroy. It turned out that he, like me, had roots in the Valley. It turned out that we had complementary skills. It turned out that, against all odds, we became a family, in a town made for families. Those first summers The Boy had a whole neighborhood of kids to play with. Our little old house rang with shouts, laughter, and occasionally tears.

We had come to Milton Freewater to start over. What we discovered was that those old roots we had still had a little life in them. We took evening drives through pale evenings, past peach, pear, and apple orchards. I started doing a project for the local historical society. Those evening drives took on a timeless quality. Some evenings it almost felt like the road had carried us back to when we first drove it, back in the sixties, when summers were hot, corn came in the husks and often included ugly little worms, tomato fields and yes, strawberry fields, stretched forever.

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It was, for those few years, a life out of time. The Boy progressed through the school system. He competed in track. He played football. He played the tuba. Life wasn’t always easy–2008 happened, and 2009, and there were signs that the world was changing, but it was out there, beyond the borders of our town, and our lives. In our world, we went to football games and track meets and solo festivals and jazz festivals, and we drove through quiet evenings, and then we sat on the porch in the golden light, and talked, or listened, or just felt the breeze on our faces.

And then we lost the House Leroy, and it was just The Boy and me, and we tried, but we both knew that losing Leroy was a grievous wound. The timeless world in which we had lived had shattered beyond repair. Driving the old roads became too painful because the history that we had built, that connection to the past that had shielded us like a golden bubble, had shattered beyond repair.

frogs3smallThere were some bad days, months, years. We struggled. We developed coping mechanisms. I developed diabetes, sleep apnea, cancer. The Boy developed depression, anxiety, and cholinergic urticaria. But still, we coped. We still fought for every bit of joy we could find. But for me, there was the sense that we were on borrowed time.

And then came last December. The university where I teach, and where The Boy was finishing up his first degree, got hit with a cyberattack, just before finals week. And we coped. All of us on campus. Finals were re-vamped or canceled. Papers came in as hard copy, rather than uploads. Grades had to be entered when that part of the system was liberated. When winter term started we were still coping. And then halfway through the term, we had snow. Then we had a warm stretch, and all of the snow accumulated in the mountains came rushing down into the valley. Water was everywhere. The Boy, the cats, and I had to evacuate to a Travelodge. We took litter boxes, three changes of clothes for each of us, the gaming systems, the computers, our cell phones, and The Boy’s tux and tuba; he had a concert that weekend.

The Valley rallied. Schools shut down and high schoolers filled sandbags for frantic homeowners. People with big rigs helped people without. Local construction companies carried gravel to washed-out roads. We managed. When the cats, The Boy and I returned home it was to find that though homes at the bridge end of our street had had to be sandbagged, our little old house sat high and dry on its little hill. We breathed a sigh of relief and settled back into our home.

And then, just a few weeks after the flood, the Corona Virus reached Washington, and then Weston, a little town about fifteen miles away. The uncertainty has been hard. What’s happening? Will there be a vaccine or not? If we get sick, what do we do? Where do we go? How do we pay the mortgage? I work in the “gig” economy; I don’t have the luxury of sick leave or unemployment insurance. I have only what I earn.

Advice started. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. Closures started. Schools and businesses in California and Seattle. And then word came that our university was closing early. All finals would be administered online. Next term will start not on a busy, lively campus, but in silent rooms where teachers will speak to screens.

The Boy had his last concert–it was the swing band, and he had a solo and rocked it. He had his last presentation and rocked that, too. He’s graduating this term, but there will be no ceremony–just a quiet acknowledgment, and a quiet party at home.

When we came to Milton we slipped back in time for a few years. We lived in a beautiful, twilight eternity. And then the bubble cracked. We lost Leroy. The Boy and I got sick. The world around us got sick. Politics, which for a while allowed us Hope smacked it right out of us. It became a foul, cynical, vicious thing, a cruel joke, and endlessly, openly, corrupt.

Even for people like us, in quiet backwaters, the stench of our dead and rotting system has become unbearable. The cyberattack, the flood, and now the Corona Virus pandemic are all symptoms of a world breaking down around us. We have always had crises, but in the past we took pride in stepping up and meeting the challenge, not just endlessly spinning, spinning, spinning. We have reached the point where the center no longer holds, and where even our quiet lives have become unrecognizable.

We have a president who, rather than enabling our own world-class scientists and systems to work effectively in combatting the virus, tries to make it into a money-making opportunity. Though overwhelming numbers of us support Medicare for All–something the virus has shown is in all of our best interests–we are saddled with a Congress refusing to act on our wishes and in our best interests.

The only solution on offer is to wash your hands and hide in your house. The thing that should make all of us stronger–our national self, our friends, neighbors, towns–is the thing that might well sicken or kill many of us. I am washing my hands. I am hiding in my house. I’ve worked from home for decades, so I know the moves. But contracts are being canceled as events are canceled or postponed. If I lose too many more I’ll be in serious trouble.

So what’s the point of all this? No matter how this comes out, I think we have reached a watershed. Colleges and universities will go back in session. The companies that survive the closures will re-open their doors. Children will go back to school. But I think something has irrevocably changed.

That beautiful golden bubble? The bubble in which for a while we lived out of time? That’s gone. It’s not even shards on the floor. The pace and magnitude of crises are accelerating, spinning us ever onward to that moment of freefall. The past wasn’t perfect. But there were certain things upon which we felt we could rely. Those things are gone. The center has not held. Yeats may have been writing about events he was around him; he might have been writing about our times as well. If the beast has not yet reached Bethlem, he has certainly programmed it into his GPS, and is no longer slouching, but speeding through the night.

The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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I got an email today from the university where I teach College Writing, announcing that next term, all classes will be moving to online instruction for several weeks. Since this is a traditional university–dorms, cafeteria, and lots and lots of classrooms–many of the professors have had limited, if any, experience with teaching online.

I, on the other hand, have been fortunate. I don’t only teach at the university; I also teach at a local community college in a thinly-populated part of a thinly-populated state. We’re badger-, cow- and rabbit-rich; people, not so much. For me, this means that the definition of “classroom” has evolved. My classroom often involves students sitting in front of me; students sitting at small branch campuses anywhere from 20 to 120 to nearly 500 miles away (I have a student this term who is attending from Medford, Oregon. I am in Milton Freewater, Oregon). It may also include students–like the high school group I had in Elgin, Oregon (way the heck up in the mountains), who had a time conflict (class time ran right straight into football practice as well as other school events). I had to record my classes for them. Because of distances and the weather around here, I often have students who call in from home.

This can be confusing for a teacher under the best of circumstances. The university is running training sessions for professors, getting them familiar with the software, which is very, very good. But there’s another component to teaching online–the human component. Being aware of what might happen and how it might affect your classroom can make your online class a success, or a not-success. So here goes.

Students attending by computer from another location often don’t feel like they’re part of a class. Many believe that you don’t see them. 

This is partly because it’s easy for an instructor to forget online students, particularly if there are students in the room. This perception can be the death of a class–when I first taught a class online I had a group of students turn the camera to face the wall, just to see if I was paying attention to them (I was). Your first job as an online teacher is to convince your students that you see them. Here are a few simple things you can do:

Take record. Every day. Keep track of who missed the previous class and let students know that you know they weren’t there. Say, “We missed you on Monday,” or “Let’s talk offline about what you missed last class period,” or “You’ll want to check in with a classmate for notes from last class period.” It’ll feel less than collegiate, but what you’re doing is letting students know that their presence is noted and appreciated.

Turn on name labels on your screen if you can, and address students by name. It’s even more important to know student names onscreen than it is to know their names in the classroom.

Insist that students turn on their cameras if at all possible and that they position them to show their faces clearly. Make sure that your camera, too, shows your face and shoulders (more about this later). Face to face is always best, even online.

Stop often and offer students the chance to ask questions or make comments. Sitting and staring at a screen can be deadly dull. Because people often feel self-conscious about speaking out online you might very well have to ask students by name for their responses. If discussion is important in your class, you’ll have to push for it. Students can and do participate online, but you’ll have to set the tone and give them space to do it.

Remember “the teacher show.”

The first term that I taught a recorded class watched my recordings. It was torture. But watching those recordings taught me a lot. Here’s what I learned:

Plan for the camera. Most professors I know spend a lot of time moving around in front of their classes. They walk, gesture, smile, and frown. An engaged teacher puts on quite a dog and pony show for the class without even thinking about it. And the class responds. Teaching to a screen is not the same. It’s easy to lose focus, get sleepy, and most of all forget that cameras flatten everything. Lectures that work wonderfully in person become boring through the monitor. You’ll have to put extra energy into keeping things focused, lively, and productive. Do anything you can to make your students “real” to you–because you’ll be just that “real” to them.

Wear flattering colors and makeup. Again, the screen flattens things. You’ll need to compensate so you don’t look corpselike onscreen.

Consider your background. Where do you want your students to see you? Blank walls are boring. A bed in the corner looks unprofessional. Half a picture looks unplanned. Look at your image on the monitor and consider the atmosphere you’d like in your classroom. Friendly and informal? Consider setting up in your clean kitchen, with the tools you’ll need for class ready at hand. You might even go nuts and put a bouquet on the counter. More formal? Consider moving a bookcase to set up for a backdrop. Then “dress” your set by shelving appropriate books and materials as well as attractive things that will look appealing and professional. You might consider taking some of the things you have in your office at work and using them. Returning students will recognize them for what they are. New students might find them unobtrusive but attractive. Invest in decent lighting. Lights designed for streaming and recording are available at a very reasonable price, and go a long way toward making you like more professional.

Smile often. When you’re not smiling try to remember to keep the corners of your mouth slightly tensed. Many of us have the “resting bitchface” going–when we’re not smiling, the corners of our mouths go down. The monitor exacerbates this. Tightening the corners of your mouth just a bit helps to counteract that. Don’t overdo it. You don’t want to look goofy or psychopathic–just pleasant. Record yourself and watch a few minutes–you’ll see what I mean.

Take advantage of the technology. Most of us are familiar with posting class materials and assignments online and asking for papers to be returned the same way. But streaming programs often offer a lot more than that. You can use that technology to help you. Requiring students to turn in everything through the online system your college or university uses means that you have a complete record of when everything arrives. Don’t be seduced into accepting papers via email except for extraordinary circumstances. Those online submission tools can help you keep organized and cut down on student questions about grades and accusations that you’ve “lost” something.

Consider building an attractive presentation to accompany each assignment. It’s a great way to organize class materials, keep yourself on track–and leave students with a handy reference for when they’re working on the assignment. Your system should also include capabilities for showing “desk” materials–sketches, equations you work by hand, and so forth. You can save and post those, too.

Use the “chat” window in your streaming software. Chatting offers a way of talking privately to students, even during class. Just be sure you’ve chosen to “chat privately.”

Keep communication open. Consider holding “office hours” online. Sign in to the streaming class, and then open a private video chat window on the side. Students can sign into the streaming window, and then, if multiple students sign in, you can route them to the private window, one at a time. Establish times when students can call you. Put that and the number you’d like to use on your syllabus. Refer to it often. Remind them that you are available. If you choose, you might set up a voicemail box where they can leave questions. If you do that, be sure you collect and respond to those questions quickly. Texting also works well–but again, only if you respond quickly to questions. In my experience, the single biggest reason students dislike–and sometimes fail–online classes is because they feel disconnected. It’s your job to offer them the tools to combat that.

Write notes on papers. Write a lot of notes. Grading like that takes a lot of time, but again, it’s a way of connecting with students on a personal level about their work in particular. It’s just plain good teaching, but it’s more than that–it’s another way of fostering that all-important sense of community. Because of scheduling exigencies I have sometimes had to teach very long classes (three hours) one day a week. Nobody’s interesting for three hours straight–not even me. Using some of that time to do a deep dive into student papers was more effective than any amount of lecturing.

Keep your face onscreen unless you’re directly referring to some visual aid or example. Plant yourself in your chair and stay there. Remember to use aids as needed–and then switch back to your face. When your students can’t see you, they assume you can’t see them. Sometimes they get distracted. Sometimes they get up and go do something. Sometimes they just get bored. There’s no substitute for teaching face to face. And that holds true even if miles and monitors lie between the faces.

Encourage students to communicate amongst themselves. Set up a group chat or bulletin board where people can go to leave notes and ask questions. Again, use your streaming software if possible (it helps to protect you, to help you monitor conversations for tone and appropriateness, and to keep school-related materials within the record-keeping system). Establish an email list so students can communicate among themselves. Set up group projects. In my writing classes, peer editing is important. Last term I had one woman in Baker City (about 90 miles south). The remainder of my students were in two classrooms 30 and 50 miles away, respectively. That wonderful, bold woman in Baker City stood up in front of her camera and said, “Can somebody in Boardman or Hermiston read my paper?” A woman in Boardman said, “I will.” They emailed their papers to each other. They did the editing. I think they talked by phone. It worked.

Finally, let yourself be human. If you’ve never taught an online class before, there will be times that you forget to “share” materials you’re discussing. There will be times that you “share” something and then forget to “unshare” it. There will be times–terrible but true–when you manage to disconnect yourself from your class entirely (I’ve been doing this for ten years, and I managed to do it last class period). You can insulate yourself quite effectively from student impatience and scorn by openly acknowledging the limitations of online classes–that it’s easy to feel invisible, that while you’ve prepared, you’re not experienced at the finer points of what you’re doing yet, and so forth. And then, when the flubs happen, correct them as quickly as possible, apologize, and move on. Things will get better. Prepare, practice ahead of time if you can. But when something goes wrong–and it will–let yourself be human. It’s a truly effective way of doing the most important thing you can do to ensure the success of your class: Fostering a sense of a shared, common, mutually-supportive experience.

Good luck!

 Questions? Feel free to leave them in the comments below; I’ll answer them there (or in  your email, if you prefer.)

 

Little Guys


patcoopshenickSo, things have gotten a little bit busy at our house. Several months ago a young man (we’ll call him Boy 2) came to stay with us for a bit. It turned out to be a happy arrangement so we formalized things–he has a room. The Boy has something he’s always wanted–a brother. I also have something I’ve always wanted–a second son. The two big boys take care of the house and laundry. We all share the cooking. The boys hang out and play video games when The Boy isn’t frantically studying to finish off his college classes (he’s finishing his AS and will be within two quarters of his BS at the end of this term). All three of us are big chatters, and love to take our journals to the coffee shop, sit, drink coffee-like beverages, and write. It’s very good.

So that’s been several months now. Then in December we grew again. This particular growth spurt was a long time coming. To really understand this we have to go way, way back to when I was in junior high, so a long, long time ago. One of my oldest sisters’ friends had a couple kids–a toddler and a four-month-old. What with one thing and another, the little ones spent a lot of time at our house. We watched them grow up. We did our best, but sometimes we let them down. And then we lost contact. I always felt bad about that.

Fast forward almost forty years, and that four-month-old baby had turned into a man, and that man called me one day. He wanted to introduce his fiance to me. They came up. We had coffee. I had a chance to apologize for my part in the “letting them down” end of things. Brent (we’ll call him that because that’s not his name) brushed my apology off. I still felt bad, but he was so very gracious about it. It was nice. It was healing. It was re-establishing an old, old connection that had meant a lot to me.

Fast forward to about five years ago. I reconnected with a friend of mine. She has a son who, what with one thing and another, didn’t have many friends his own age. The Boy and I decided that we could help with that. My friend’s son started coming over. We made it a point to invite some of The Boy’s friends (who are good, kind, and inclusive people) over. For five years now, our living room has been filling up with boys-now-young-men, playing games, shouting, and laughing. My part is buying pizza or making chili and fresh bread and cinnamon rolls. My friend’s son has friends his own age now.

Fast forward again to last December. I got another call. Brent now had a toddler and a tiny baby of his own, and he and his wife really wanted to go out for New Year’s Eve. And so we came full circle. He and his wife showed up at my door with their two little ones, a couple diaper bags, and a list of instructions. And then they left for the evening, leaving their children with us.

I was awed and terrified that they were entrusting their children to us (after all, we had let Brent down when he was little). Also, I was terrified because, hey, high-energy toddler and newborn baby. Let’s just say that those lovable little guys put us through our paces. The Big Little Boy loved the Big Boys and they loved him. They played video games, and catch, and all sorts of toddler-delighting games. They fed him. They got him ready for bed. Then all three of them slept in the living room (big boys on the couches, big little boy curled up on our enormous plush bean bag chair).

While this wild and rowdy lovefest was going on in the living room, the baby and I were trying to figure things out. It turned out that his mom had been breast-feeding him (Yay, Mom!), something I am no longer equipped for. We struggled with the bottle. I struggled with the finer points of diapering. Eventually we all went to bed, at which time I discovered that that tiny baby had apparently been warehousing pee since birth. That little guy peed through eight blankets that night. And then, in the morning, as I was exhaustedly giving him his breakfast bottle, he suddenly opened his eyes and looked at me. I looked at him. He drank his bottle. And I remembered what it was that I loved about being a mom–it’s that silent, loving, curious, powerful bond.

His parents slept in, picked up the little boys, and drove home. I changed my bed (that little guy could really pee), and then all three of us big people went to bed and slept all afternoon.

A couple weeks ago the little guys came for another visit. If our first visit had a steep learning curve, it all paid off. The Big Little Guy and the Big Boys knew the moves. That little high-energy toddler was a lot more comfortable. More listening happened. The Boy pretty much managed things–he kept the Big Little Guy entertained and fed. By 7:30 the Big Little Boy was asleep.

The baby and I got along great. I remembered how to put a diaper on. The baby had switched from boob to bottle. He’d graduated to sleeping in four-hour shifts, starting at about 6:30pm. He’s a peaceful baby, so when he woke up I could give him a bottle, burp and change him and tuck him back in before he ever really woke up. I had the moves back. The baby appreciated that–he smiled, laughed and kicked when morning came. When Brent and his wife showed up this time they brought a spare bag of diapers. That’s a good sign.

Our little house is full, sometimes bulging. It’s a happy house, a house where people can put their feet up, where we can find room for everybody. When The Boy was little he worried a lot that, since we didn’t have a dad in the house, we weren’t a real family. He doesn’t worry about that anymore. Our family–the family we’ve built, is as real as it gets.


Stardew-Valley

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.

townhall

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.

barn

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

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.

accommodation copy
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.

LINDA C. WISNIEWSKI

WRITER, memoir teacher, knitter, quilter, happy trail walker...

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