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…the more they stay the same. At least here in the Magic Dog House they do. Today The Boy got his first college degree. As of this weekend, he’s also a partner in our newly incorporated LLC. All of this sounds very dramatic, but in reality it’s been a slow evolution. He’s been contributing his talents to presentations, to typesetting and laying out books, and to developing data management programs for years now. We’ve just made it official.

Friday, we worked on client stuff. Saturday we played. Today we watched his online graduation. This evening he’s having his socially distanced graduation party–several folks he’s been friends with for more than a decade. When we moved here he was in fourth grade, and nine years old. On the day we bought the house I made a commitment: We would not move again until he was through high school, and possibly college if it was convenient. I wanted him to have a home town, a place where he had roots. We’d moved four times in his first nine years. I didn’t want to yank him up again.

So–here we stopped, and here we stayed. It hasn’t always been perfect, but it’s been very good in a lot of ways. And today? It’s pretty danged wonderful. My house and yard feel full of boys–bringing their wives and girlfriends now. Normally they congregate in the living room; today they’re outside, keeping their distance, and strengthening those connections that have served them so well. Happy Graduation, Patrick. I love you.

At the Center


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The last post here was about Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate. It is perhaps a measure of our times that I can’t even remember posting that. This is what happens when crises multiply. We had the impeachment trial, and watched an entire party with one–count’em, one–exception, vote to shield a President who clearly should have been tried. We had the Democratic primaries, which to my sorrow seemed to proceed much as Democratic primaries often proceed–the candidates who seem the strongest, who offer the best ideas, and who give many of us the feeling that we finally have the opportunity to vote for something offering the hope of change, rather than just against something vile, are maneuvered out of the race, leaving only the preferred party candidate standing. So we were stuck with Biden, who had gone silent and was hiding in his basement.

Then the coronavirus hit, and with it the ever-increasing realization that Trump had no plan, had actually dismantled the plan left in place by the Obama administration, and gave not one feck about the deaths as long as the Stock Market stayed strong. So we retreated into our homes. The pittance provided to help us through the shutdown disappeared into the maw of mortgage companies, rent, groceries, and utilities. And still the death numbers rose.

And then there was another death, not from coronavirus but from a policeman’s knee on a Black man’s neck, an all too literal image of what has all too often been the state of affairs in the U.S. And suddenly all the festering anger about far too many cases of police violence against people of color, far too many bills and no way to pay them, far too many deaths with no vaccine or real treatment plan in place, and far too many presidential speeches about how we were doing great when any idiot with a window could see we were not doing great, came roaring out into the streets.

And that’s when things got crazy. Suddenly we had protestors who had hit the streets because they wanted haircuts furious at protesters who had hit the streets because they were tired of being victimized by the system that is supposed to protect all of us. We had a president whose racist views have been an open secret scheduling his return to the campaign trail on Juneteenth, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, site of one of the worst incidences of racial violence in America’s history. (He rescheduled, but the only after public outcry.)

Mortgage and rental companies are gearing up to start evictions. For many of us, work is still hard to come by (I’m one of the lucky few–I’ve actually managed to develop a couple new income streams during the shutdown–but my experience is not typical). Coronavirus infections and deaths are on the rise again–maybe due to premature opening, maybe because that’s the nature of the disease. And we’ve still got the presidential election, and with it its handmaidens of voter suppression, partisanship, poll manipulation, and what used to be called “spin,” but now can be called nothing but “lying.”

And in the midst of all this, I find myself in my quiet office, in my quiet house, teaching classes and leading retreats via Zoom, working on city projects for a lovely woman, planning to start work on a project I’ve been doing for something like fifteen years, and still working with authors who have stories to tell. My son and I have finally incorporated–we are now true business partners.

There’s a huge disconnect between the national and global scene and my quiet life. Sure, I’m worried about the mortgage. I’ve got a call pending with the bank. but so far we’re here. We’re healthy, and above all, we actually do have some people in Washington who seem to “get it.” Bernie Sanders, of course, has been working tirelessly, fighting for economic relief for millions of us. Thank you, Bernie–I wish you were still a candidate, but I respect and love you for continuing the fight for us, even though you’ve been denied the opportunity to lead from behind the Resolute desk.

I’m also grateful to my senators, Wyden and Merkely, and my governor, Kate Brown, who have also been fighting for our safety and prosperity. And finally–and most unexpectedly, I find myself grateful for Mitt Romney. I didn’t vote for him in 2012. Had he run for the presidency the way he seems to have governed Massachusetts things might have been different, but I watched him disavowing some really good things he’d done, and, well, I just couldn’t see it. But then I watched him, alone in his party, vote to try President Trump.

That impressed me. I really disliked his business practices and financial policies, but clearly he had drawn a line in the sand. I respected that. And then I saw some pictures of him, masked, hot and sweaty, perfect hair mussed, eyes smiling, marching with the “Black Lives Matter” protesters.

I can’t tell you what that means to me. I still am disgusted and furious at the GOP capitulation to Trump and trumpism. I am still nauseated by the misogyny, the racism, and the support and elevation of white supremacy and white supremacist ideas. But in all that roiling dark, I sit here in my quiet office and look at Mitt Romney, rich dude, investment banker, sometimes tone-deaf bastion of the Establishment. I see him smiling behind his mask, on the streets to say with his presence that Black Lives Matter, and I realize that in this person I had previously dismissed as a Suit, there is integrity. There is courage. And for me, that means there is hope.

 

Dear Mr. Biden,


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Dear Mr. Biden,
You now have what you’ve wanted. You are the de facto nominee for the Democratic party. I could say a lot about how I see that, but none of what I might say will change the facts. Our voting choices are you or Mr. Trump, or some protest vote, or not voting at all. Right now, I’m inclined to not vote at all, to be honest. I dislike the tactics the Dems used to install you as the nominee. I disliked you blustering and belittling people who disagreed with you in the debates. That might score points with the moderators, but it didn’t score points with me. But still, there you are. You’ve said nice things about Mr. Sanders, and about his movement. I hope you meant them.

Right now, I doubt it. I think you’re saying what you think I want to hear. I doubt those words will last past the election. Given the alternative, I hope you win, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope. I hope you prove me wrong. If you don’t, I probably just won’t vote. What would be the point? We need someone strong enough to combat the virulence of the GOP. I don’t think you’re that man. “Reaching across the aisle” is meaningless when the aisle has been shifted to the lawn on the right side of the Capitol.

I feel my vote has been stolen. If you want it, you’re going to have to prove that you will actively, passionately, and vigorously pursue the policies that are life and death to millions of us–one-payer healthcare, free college, and student loan amendment or forgiveness, paid sick leave, climate change, preserving the environment, financial regulation, racial, gender, common-sense gun regulations, and age equality, and legal reform to ensure that the laws work equally for all of us.

Right now–yes, during your “campaign,” which is now officially over for the primary–I want to see and hear you proposing and working to enact the reforms that Mr. Sanders has been advocating to stave off ruin for millions. Here’s a crazy thought–how about you work with him on those things? How about you use your brand new bully pulpit to fight for us, the people you’re asking to vote for you? Donald Trump said something last week about governors–he said that Federal support goes both ways–the governors who want Federal support have to be nice to him. He was dead wrong, of course, as he so often is. The governors did not get their positions because of his vote. They owed nothing to him.

But that was him. This is us, now, Mr. Biden–you and the people you are asking to elect you president. We do have the right to elect someone who will fight for our best good. We do have the right to expect that, if elected, you will be our advocate in the White House. So I’m asking. What are you going to do to earn my vote? And then, if you get it, what are you going to do to assure us all that you’re worthy of the trust we’ve placed in you? Who will you fight for?

Will you fight for the billionaires who fund much of your campaign? Will you pursue some demented form of “trickle-down” economics that only enriches those at the top? Will you continue to bail out banks, oil companies, and corporations that have already been the benefit of government largesse not once or twice, but over and over? Or will you look beyond the walls that money and political position have built around you to the millions of us who lie beyond those walls? Will we be real and worth fighting for once the election’s over? Will what’s happening to us out here in the small towns, the farms, and the just-barely-afloat small businesses keep you awake at night? Will you use our lives as your North Star, the guiding force of your actions? Or will you use us as political props until it’s no longer necessary to have our grubby, poor, undecorative selves on the platform with you?

Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.” You might be nicer than Mr. Trump (that’s a pretty low bar, but I suspect true). But that’s not enough. The millions of us out in flyover land have been living with the evils perpetrated on us by the greedy, and by the “good men” in government who have done nothing. The time is past for that. We need warriors to fight for us, not nice guys who don’t want to rock the boat.

You want my vote, Mr. Biden? Prove it. Earn it by putting yourself on the line not just for me, but for all the millions of us out here who are losing our health insurance with our jobs, who are facing rent and mortgage payments we have no money to meet, who have children we struggle to feed, who have no bargaining power because the unions have been busted. We don’t need nice Uncle Joe. We need crabby Uncle Joe, who is pissed as all hell and is coming to kick ass and take names. We need a warrior. Are you that man? If I give you my vote, what will you do to show me you’ve been worthy of my trust?

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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