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It’s the night before November 3–voting day. I live in Oregon, where we’ve been voting by mail for years, so my ballot has been safe in the bosom of whoever holds onto votes until they get counted.

The choice of who to vote for is not complicated this time around for any of us. I live in a “red” part of a “blue” state. There have been Trump rallies in my town. A significant portion of my family support Trump. I’ve been reading essays and articles about how all of us are equally to blame for our shattered family relationships, and how if we would just learn to see beyond political divisions we could all, in the words of Rodney King, “just get along.”

But here’s the thing–this campaign is not about politics for many of us. Authors Tim Reid, Gabriella Borter, Michael Martina quote professor of psychology and neural science at New York University John J. Bavel in their article “‘You are no longer my mother’: How the election is dividing American families.” “This ‘political sectarianism’ has become not only tribal, but moral.”

For many of us, this election has become a litmus test. For me, it’s forced me to ask myself a question. I read a question on a Gallup poll a few months ago: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” I thought about that, sitting in my house, isolated to flatten the curve. I thought about the loss of one of my primary sources of income to the depredations of the virus. It was hard to say I was better off–but then again, I’ve always flirted with bankruptcy.

It just seemed like the wrong question to me. How did it happen that finances became the sole criteria of how one was doing in life? What about love? What about raising happy kids? What about doing a good and worthwhile job that simply didn’t pay as well as, oh say a political consulting job? What about having time to develop as a person? What about having time and energy to give back? In short, what about all those good, worthy, and fulfilling things that we do when we can step off the wage slave treadmill for a few minutes? What about looking who I have become in the last four years?

I realized that the question, for me, isn’t, “Am I better off?” but, “Am I better?” And that’s where this becomes a simple calculation for me. Eight years ago I missed Barack Obama’s inauguration. I missed it because I had listened to him speak during the campaign. He spoke about how we are better together, how together we can change things, how there is still hope that our better angels will prevail–but that it would take all of us, working together.

And so when a predatory lending company called me and insisted I go across the street and tell my little old neighbor lady that she needed to call them about a debt I didn’t just hang up and ignore the situation. I went across the street. I talked to my ninety-year-old neighbor lady and learned that she had been trying for months to convince the company that the debt was not hers. The calls had gotten so bad that this lady, would couldn’t walk to a car, had stopped answering her telephone.

I went back to my house. I called the Better Business Bureau. I called the state Attorney General’s office. And then I called the company. It took hours. I talked my way up the organization ladder to the vice president for customer relations. And at last–at last–I found the person who could correct the record and set my neighbor lady free to answer her phone again, and to go out into the neighborhood without the knowledge that all of her neighbors had been informed that she was a cheat.

I did that because Candidate Obama had reminded me that I could be Better. I could make a difference. Yes, I missed the inauguration, but I felt–and still feel–pretty amazing about that. I missed the inauguration, but I stepped into my neighbor lady’s corner and started swinging, and together, we prevailed.

I’m not perfect, but because of the Obama candidacy I am Better. And now I ask myself the same question about the Trump candidacy. This is his second term, so I am very clear on what he inspires his followers to do. So are you. I think we’d both agree that if we are inspired by Trump we might be many things, but we won’t be better neighbors, better husbands, better wives, better parents, better children, better parents…Better.

This election is about more than politics. It’s about who we each aspire to be. I don’t just want to be better off. I want to be Better. Joe Biden wasn’t my first choice, or my second. But here’s the thing, there is room in his world for the decent, the honorable, the generous. There is room to be Better. And that’s how I’m voting.

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rebuildamerica2020

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?

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Leroybookfrontcover

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.

VBcemetery

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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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.

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