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It’s taken me a long time to reach this point, and even longer before I was brave enough to say it out loud, but I will not be casting my vote for Hillary Clinton this election, even if she does become the party’s candidate. She is not my candidate. I find her views on war frightening and her allegiance to Israel’s right to bomb indiscriminately nauseating. Her financial plan offers more of the same old same old that got us here in the first place. I find her feminism unconvincing in light of the additional pain and suffering she has caused millions through her misguided support of “welfare reform,” and her willingness to “destroy” (again, her word) the women who called Bill Clinton on his sexual misdeeds. Finally I find her wooing of and pandering to the financial industry while offering full-throated support to regulation cynical and dishonest, to say the least. I find the financial industry’s allegiance to her even more worrying–they don’t support candidates unless they see a clear benefit for themselves in the relationship.

Most of all, I find her willingness to sacrifice ethics, morals, and values to political expediency absolutely terrifying. I’ve seen her run in two presidential elections now. Both times, she used tactics I found beneath contempt. Watching her misrepresent, distort, and lie about her record and Senator Sanders’ record has been a bad trip down memory lane.
It’s also been a timely reminder. I had forgotten much of what troubled me about her previous campaign. I had let the distasteful mess of the Lewinsky years slip from my mind. But she has encouraged us to recall those years, I presume because she thinks they’ll offer her credibility. Well, I have recalled those years now, and that gives me a timeline–I’ve seen her in action now for twenty years. When I look at her record over the long haul I am struck first by how very, very committed she has been to the pursuit of political power. She has been willing to sacrifice things that I think no one should sacrifice in pursuit of maintaining that power. Second I am struck by a pattern I see–she waffles and dodges and then, when an idea’s popularity becomes inevitable, she comes out in full-throated support–and claims she’s been there all along.
I know others see her differently–others are less bothered by what I see as her lapses–possibly legal lapses, although she most typically seems to achieve her ends by creatively stretching the law into shapes it was never intended to take–but even more by her ethical, moral, and judgment lapses. Why make up a story about running under fire when you know the landing was televised? Why take obscenely large payment for speeches to the financial sector when you must know you’re considering a presidential run (does anybody seriously think she wasn’t planning on running for this election from the day she conceded in 2008)? Why vote for a war that you have every reason to know is unjustified (others certainly knew–why did Hillary, that great international expert, not know)? Why create at least the strong appearance of impropriety by rewarding Clinton Foundation donors with State Department support and favors?
Even if we put the best possible construction on each of these issues, we have a choice between a Hillary who is criminally corrupt or a Hillary who is weak, venal, and terribly, terribly short-sighted, and certainly as poorly advised as ever Ethred the Unready was (look him up–it’s a funny story; I promise you).
I have a lot of reasons to not vote for Hillary. But why Bernie? I’m voting for him for three reasons:
1. First, because when I look at his record over the last thirty years, I see something very different from Hillary’s record: I see a principled man who has consistently fought for a set of core issues–the same core issues that have formed the basis of his campaign. Is he perfect? No. I differ with him on gun control, to mention just one thing. But here’s the thing: I know where he stands. He stands precisely where he has always stood–for social and economic justice for those of us who cannot afford to pay $225,000 for a house, let alone a speech. He fought for his ideals when they were unpopular. But now those ideals’ time has come–and Hillary, in true Hillary fashion, has suddenly discovered that she supported them all along. ($15 minimum wage, anyone?)
2. I am voting for Bernie Sanders  I’ve seen the way the two candidates have conducted themselves under the pressure of the campaign–in interviews, on the debate stage, and in rallies. And I find Sanders’ conduct infinitely more palatable.
3. Most important, I am voting for Bernie Sanders because Hillary Clinton’s message throughout the campaign has been,”Dreams are for suckers. Accept the status quo. You’ll never change anything. You might as well not try.”
I don’t accept that. I don’t accept that because for me, it’s just not true. My life has broken more often than anybody’s life should. Each time it broke I faced a decision: I could just try to get back to “normal”–to re-establish the status quo–or I could take a deep breath, look around, and use my broken life as an opportunity to ask myself, “What is it I really want to be? What do I really want to do with my future?” And then, somehow–maybe because things were so broken there really was nowhere to go but up–I took the leap into the unknown. I dreamed big. I took hold of those dreams and let them pull me to a better place.
Was that new place perfect? No. But that new place was built on dreams, not fear. And when the new place breaks–and it does–I know that I can dream big again.
I am not voting for Hillary because her pitch asks me to pipe down, get in line, accept the corruption in our political system, stop trying to be my best self. She’s asking me to kill a little bit of my soul. I am voting for Bernie for the same reason I voted for Barack Obama–because he’s challenging me to grow, to dream, to believe that though we are no great shakes as a nation right now, we can be better, if we work at it. Dreams don’t come easy. We’ve seen that.
Quite likely Bernie Sanders will lose the primary. I could argue about the shenanigans we’ve seen, but others could very rightly say that our politics have always had shenanigans. They would be right. But here’s the thing: Just because something’s always been there doesn’t make it right. And now that I have the opportunity to actually vote for a candidate with integrity, why on earth would I throw that opportunity away on “business as usual?”
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Now: September 11, 2015

This was almost going to be a very different post–all about how we have become a nation obsessed with divisions, with the things that tear us apart, about how many of us have turned aggression into a virtue, about how God and guns and violence in the name of either or both have become rallying cries for a significant swath of the population. All those things are true. All of them are worrying. But then, today, something pretty amazing happened.

Actually it started a number of years ago, when an international coalition led the the Obama administration enacted sanctions on Iran, with a view of driving them to the negotiating table. The sanctions worked; word recently came down that the Iranians had agreed to draw down their nuclear program and allow regular inspections. The deal was–and is–far from perfect, but it held out the hope of an end to nuclear proliferation in Iran.

And then the GOP weighed in.

As has been their custom since President Obama’s election, they opposed the treaty not on its merits, but simply because it had been negotiated by the Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. They set about doing what they could to hamstring the treaty–an act pretty much guaranteed to precipitate the very thing we all claim to want to prevent–a nuclearized Iran. All week, there has been enormous pressure on Democratic Senators to vote with the Republicans, and against the treaty.

And yesterday, just two days before the anniversary of a day we all remember with horror and sorrow, the news came that 41 Democrats had formally expressed support for the treaty. That was enough to prevent an override of a filibuster. The motion of disapproval was dead.

That’s a big thing. In an environment where the first reaction has too often become the most deadly reaction, a significant number of our elected officials opted instead for the well-tempered approach–instead of seeking to fix us so well that we’d never break again, even if that meant we tore ourselves apart, they opted to try diplomacy first, to give us all a chance to step away from the nuclear hot button, even if it’s only for a few years.

It’s difficult to look at the U.S. responses both internally and internationally to 9/11 and feel much pride. While some good and necessary things were done, many other actions were fueled by rage, vengeance, racism, and religious intolerance. There’s a case to be made that in some ways we have harmed ourselves just as surely as those planes did when the flew into the twin towers. But maybe this treaty, which offers a path to peace, can be the beginning of a new era for us. Maybe instead of being a force of destruction–as we surely have been in Iraq–we can become something else.

Then: September 11, 2001

The television footage says it all—and nothing. Over and over, I see the World Trade Center in New York, the top of the foreground tower swathed in pillows of dark gray smoke. And then another jet shoots behind it, and a fireball erupts from the background tower’s heart. The scene switches; soot and ash blanket the street, the blasted cars, the twisted girders, the piles of rubble. That’s all that’s left—rubble—of what used to be one of the tallest buildings in the world.

I am amazed at how bloodless the scene is. There are no bodies. From time to time EMS crews push a gurney to an ambulance. On the gurney are sealed bags. Is this all?  Just bits and pieces?  Perhaps. There are few people even visibly wounded. Perhaps that is most horrifying of all. The mayor of New York, the news commentators, keep talking about the thousands slain, the horrific loss, the body parts in the streets, emergency vehicles driving over bodies because they are buried in the ash and soot.

There is the crash in Pennsylvania—the news crews say that there’s nothing left bigger than a telephone book. When there is a crash, one expects there to be wreckage. And yet, there is nothing to look at, to say, “This is the cost, this is horror, these are the dead.” There is simply nothing.

There are stories of people jumping from the towers, rushing to meet their deaths, rather than waiting to be devoured by flames, or crushed in the collapse of steel, of concrete, of glass. This morning, there is a single shot of a man lying on the wind, his business suit correct, his tie whipping upward. As I watch him fall, he is already dead.

I feel nothing. Where is the pain, the grief, the anger, the anguish? I called my son’s grandmother and aunts in New York. They are working far away in Queens, near the airport, at the other end of Manhattan. A few streets can be a world. They are fine.

I feel nothing, but I am exhausted. I hold my son, and sleep. Then I wake, and try to work. I cannot concentrate. There is a pall over the day, a cloud of soot and ashes. Everything is gray, dim. I call my mother. She believes this is the beginning of Apocalypse, the birth of Armageddon. I hang up, wondering if she’s right.

Voices speak of thousands dead, but there are no visible bodies. They speak of terrorists, but there is no visible enemy. How can I comprehend a disaster so overwhelming that there is simply nothing left?

Normally news helicopters would circle the scenes like vultures, shooting endless vistas of disaster. I could see them, and understand. But the air is off limits. Ground crews shoot footage. It is bleak, gray, dead. This morning, I hear the roar of a jet. It fills the air, rumbling the house. I am across the country, in Oregon, and I know that, apart from our harbor, there is very little reason for terrorists to find us an attractive target—we are small-time, small-town. I have always believed that very smallness protects us.

But when I hear the jet, I realize that there is no safety in anonymity. The thousands of New Yorkers, the plane passengers, the Pentagon workers, were anonymous. They were simply going about their lives. There was nothing dramatic or attack-worthy about them. I begin to shake. I want to run outside, and scan the horizon for a column of black smoke. To the east, far away, near my mother’s house, lies Ordinance, an old army base. My son and I pass it when we go to visit her. Pronghorn antelope range the fields around the bunkers.

I try not to look at those bunkers. I know that they are used to store biological weapons. Today, when the plane roars overhead, part of me wants to look east, toward Ordinance, but I don’t. If Ordinance has been hit, it’s already too late. So I hide, and trust in the failed normalcy of the world, and in the failed smallness of my life. Probably Ordinance is fine. Probably. Later I turn on the television. The news is still all about the devastation in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. I am safe.

At least for now. I listen to the President’s remarks, and I find myself wondering how one can respond to such an attack without making it worse. To do nothing is to send a clear message to terrorists that there are no consequences for such an act. To respond militarily is to risk the world. How should such an act be answered?  I don’t know.

While no one seems to be sure exactly how this will change the world, everyone agrees that it has. Americans have traditionally been willing to risk their lives for freedom. We have been a nation of risk takers. Perhaps now we are willing to sacrifice freedom to preserve our lives. We are growing older. Perhaps we are going wiser; perhaps not. Perhaps we are only growing tired, cynical, fearful, and lazy.

I watch the news coverage, and I find myself thinking of shear bolts. My parents ran a custom harvesting service. Each summer, we faced shear bolts. Forage choppers work by pulling things into a box and chopping them up. A pair of toothed rollers spin behind a row of knives, pulling the forage into the box as it is mown. In the box is a revolving set of knives. While the system is powerful enough to kill a sheep, a deer, a man, it is also fragile. If the machine picks up a rock, or a sheep, or a person—anything over a certain size—the rollers push apart. They still spin, but if sufficient pressure is placed on them a shear bolt on the end of the roller snaps, and the rollers stop.

Fields being what they are, shear bolts snap often. As the truck driver, it was my job to replace the broken shear bolt each time it snapped. One horrible day it seemed that I was replacing them every five minutes. My head throbbed. My nose ran. My neck ached. The wind blew and it was August, and the chopped forage and dust flew everywhere. I choked, and the dust stuck to my skin, and I itched. And the damned shear bolts kept snapping. By the end of the day I was ready to rip that machine apart with my bare hands, take a hammer to the windows, and a knife to the tires.

That night I asked my father if we couldn’t just weld the parts together or something—anything to keep the chopper running. He said, “No, we can’t. The shear bolts protect the system. They’re designed to be the weak point. By snapping they stop the rollers before something can be pulled into the knives that might break them, or destroy the gears.” It was the first time I had heard of a weakness being engineered into a system for the protection of the whole.

The next morning we stopped at the Hesston dealer and got some new shear bolts—apparently the box we had hadn’t been tempered enough or something. And then we went back to work, and the bolts still snapped, but not quite as often.

We are faced with a monumental broken shear bolt. And we have to fix it. Changes are necessary. The situation must be addressed. But perhaps we should think carefully before we start welding things together. I find myself hoping that in fixing this tragedy, we don’t fix it so well we destroy ourselves completely.

I watch the news. It’s still bewildering. I still don’t understand. We have been struck a terrible blow. But the death blow is in our own hands, to strike, or to avert. We can only be destroyed from within.

I don’t have answers. I don’t even know all the questions. I haven’t even begun to comprehend what is happening. But one thing I know: there is much that is good and precious in my life, and much of that is because of our system, flawed as it is. I don’t have the answers, but I hope that we can keep from picking up hammers and knives—that we can search for the properly tempered solution, and that we can hold onto our patience and courage, and in the end, save ourselves.

Then: September 8, 2010

I wrote those words in the days following September 11, 2001. We don’t often talk politics over here, but I look around at the irrationality that has come to pervade our national discourse. I listen to hate-filled talk go unrebuked–and indeed, being treated as comments worth addressing. I hear about good Christians who publicly plan to burn copies of the Koran.

I watch as my fellow Americans busily undermine what remain of our civil liberties in the wake of the Bush era, and I am afraid, not that we will be destroyed by Muslim Americans wishing to build a youth center in downtown New York or by ravening hordes of Mexicans yearning to pick apricots, or by some evil plot hatched by the President and Democratic leadership, but by the pettiness, prejudice, racism, bigotry, and self-serving small-mindedness that have grown so prevalent our national government is literally choking on them. Our government has become an obscenity.

The thing I feared even more than fiery destruction is coming to pass around me–there are those among us who have taken that dark day as an excuse to give in to their own darkest impulses, to retreat into the simple, false world of “Us” against “Them,” of “Saved” or “Lost,” of “Christian” or Muslim, Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Progressive, Good or Evil.

Rational discourse is dying. If we can’t find a way to talk to each other, work with each other, and respect each other we will, in the words of my long-ago blog post, have “fixed ourselves too well,” and brought about our own destruction.

Our true enemy is not a group radicals half a world away–or even just across our southern border–but our own bigotry, isolationism, and selfishness. We are being manipulated coldly and cynically. Our fear and anger is making us co-conspirators in our own destruction. And it’s all being done with words.

I am just one person. I live in a small town in a Red part of a Blue state. I worry about how I will buy milk a lot more than I worry about the migrant laborers who come to our town to pick the fruit. I don’t have power or influence. I don’t have the money to buy them–hell, I don’t have the money to get a physical right now.

But I have my words. And today I choose to use them not to rail against imagined outrages perpetrated in the name of making things a little better for all of us, but to protest against the criminal abuse of our wonderful, rich, nuanced language. I choose to use my words to ask–no, to demand–that we give our Mother Tongue a little respect. That we not manufacture horrors to scare the populace into a position that will benefit us, and harm them. That we learn to edit our national discourse, to remove the extraneous and distracting so that we can focus on the words that matter. And that we demand of ourselves the same integrity we demand in our national discourse.

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So The Boy comes home from school a couple weeks ago and tells me there are parent-teacher conferences coming up. Because I am a Good and Caring Mom (and because I live in a small town, and the school administration and teaching know where I live and while Hunt Me Down if I don’t show up) I dutifully trot myself down to the school on the night of conferences, The Boy in tow. It’s a beautiful place, our school. I think it was designed by the same guy who designed Central Park in New York (he did a number of schools in our area, apparently while he was out slumming), and the building has been kept up, but not aggressively modernized. Our school has not an auditorium, but a theater, with theater seats, plaster molding and a crest around the proscenium, and a stage. I sit in the dark in that theater and I slip out of time, and sit with all the other parents who have listened to their children play and sing from those seats. It’s a good part of history, and I love history.

I particularly love local history, and so when The Boy’s history teacher tells me that she’s going to have the students read Deep Creek, a novel based on local history, I am intrigued. She explains that the incident on which the novel is based occurred at Deep Creek, on the Oregon side of the Snake River.

So I go home, and download the novel onto my kindle and start to read, and then every afternoon The Boy and I sit in the sun outside our coffee shop and talk about the book we’re both reading. At least we do that for a few days, and then I get far, far ahead of him, so we can’t talk about it anymore lest I spoil the story for him.

I finish the book. It’s a terrible story. Well written, but a terrible story. The facts are these: A group of Chinese miners were camped at Deep Creek on the Snake River while they mined various sites in the area. And then one day a group of seven cattle rustlers swept down upon them, tortured and massacred them. According to some sources it’s the worst such even in Oregon history.

That was bad, but then it got worse. Turns out that the men doing the massacring (and there’s virtually no doubt who they were and what they did) weren’t just cattle rustlers. When they weren’t rustling cows and and massacring Chinese miners these men were good, upstanding, church-going members of the Wallowa community. They were ranchers, farmers, laborers, family men in some cases. In fact, that was their primary defense–that they were “good men” (in one case a “good schoolboy” with a bright future in front of him–the youngest member of the group was in his mid-teens) and so of course wouldn’t have done such a thing, and if they did, well, the Chinese probably deserved it–they weren’t real Americans. They looked different, spoke a different language–there was some question whether they had souls. Certainly they didn’t see America like the good folks in Wallowa saw America…is any of this starting to sound familiar?

In the end, the three men who were caught were acquitted (they blamed the others who had evaded capture–even though all of the men had been there, and from the ammunition recovered it appeared that all but possibly one had participated in the killing). After all, they were Good Men, and the Chinese were, well, Chinese, not good Christians, likely not even fully human. Nobody was even completely sure how many men were there–eventually the best estimate was that around 34 men had died at Deep Creek. There wasn’t even an accurate record of their names. Besides, they were dead, and Deep Creek was so very, very far from anywhere. Even if one of the miners had survived, he quite likely wouldn’t have been allowed to bring legal action, or possibly even testify, since they weren’t citizens. In the end It was easier, and better for Lewiston (the closest town) to simply push the dreadful incident into one of those dark and shadowy corners where we put the shameful things that remind us that all too often we are more than we appear. In this case, the records were literally shoved out of sight–lost or hidden for nearly 100 years in a basement.

Eventually the records were unearthed, and there was a sort of acknowledgement of the Deep Creek Massacre–the cove where the creek enters the Snake River is now called Chinese Massacre Cove. But we still don’t have a firm record of them men’s names who died that day. After all, they were Chinese, not real Americans.

I finished Deep Creek, and found myself wondering about the men who perpetrated this outrage–and about the people who chose to close their eyes to the monsters in their midst, to deny that “good men” had done a horrifying thing–and torturing and killing 34 virtually unarmed men is horrifying, particularly since there seems to have been no real reason for the act apart from race hatred.

What does it mean to us when the “good men” we respect and admire commit evil deeds? What does it mean that we prefer to look the other way, to refuse to call their actions by their true names, and hold them accountable? What does it mean when we refuse to demand an accounting from those who have done evil in our name, when we say we choose to “focus on the future?” How can we have a healthy, happy future when it’s built on such a shoddy foundation?

There has been a lot of talk about returning to the principles that we like to ascribe to our forbears. Nobody likes to mention Deep Creek. Nobody likes to mention the havoc wreaked on the people who were here before us. Nobody likes to mention the deep prejudice that has marred our history.

There are many good and honorable things in our national history, but there are also dark and shameful things, things with which we have yet to really grapple as a nation. Like the men judging the “good men” who went out one weekend and slaughtered 34 other men for no good reason, those who shout the loudest about returning to our forbears’ values don’t like to acknowledge the deep wounds those who went before us caused.

Why does this matter? Because the values that have come down to us have been shaped by those “good men” who loved their children, tended their farms, and in the off season rustled cattle and slaughtered defenseless men. It’s not a spoken thing, but the fear and hatred of the alien, strange, and foreign persist. Listen to the debate about guest workers. Listen to the rabid rhetoric directed at “Islamist Extremists”–and many seem to have forgotten that there are any other kind. Listen to the hate speech about healthcare making us “like Europe.” The attitudes that shaped the tragedy of Deep Creek are very much with us because the values that created those attitudes are still very much with us.

And that is why I get nervous when I hear conservative public speakers and politicians begin to wax eloquent about the virtues of our forbears, and how we should return to their values that “made America great.” Yes, crossing the continent took great courage. Surviving took great ingenuity. Exploiting and enslaving the vulnerable and robbing, imprisoning, and slaughtering those who were here before us because we coveted what they had took a very different set of skills.

All too often these days it seems that conservatism is paired with increasingly open racism, sexism, and exclusionary language and policies. Conservatism in its most virulent form has become little more than an attempt to roll back history on the social contract–and with that rollback we are seeing a new public acceptance of sexism and racism that would have been considered gauche and backward in the last years of the last century.

I don’t believe those restrictive, divisive values made us strong. I think they made us bullies. I don’t believe we should return to those values. I believe we should recognize that those who came before us were human, and sometimes monsters and heroes rode around in one skin, just as they do today.

History is important–we learn from it. But after we learn from it we should grow beyond it. We should recognize that Thomas Jefferson might have written movingly about freedom, but he still kept slaves, just as the men of Wallowa were good family men–and criminals and murderers. Perhaps this is the lesson of our time–understanding ourselves means understanding the darkness and the light that live in each of us.

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In light of the jobs report, let me offer not a solution, but a new way of looking at the problem: The story of Harriet and Betsy. I’ve posted this before, but it’s been a while. Enjoy the story–and consider a trip to the junkyard!

The last few years have been hard on all of us. When things started going south financially I started thinking about this book, and how much it helped me in the times when my life broke down. And so I’m posting it. 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.

somethingbetterbodyadults-22

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I just finished reading an article about Mitt Romney’s Woman Problem, and it got me to thinking about my instinctive “ish” reaction to the man. Logically there’s no reason for it. He’s handsome. He’s well-groomed. He’s wealthy. In short, he should have those of us who like such men drooling into our salads, right? So why is it that my first instinct upon seeing his image is “ish,” and the second is a cutting remark? Mother Corn had her own opinions about this (and I’d suggest you go read her article), but speaking for myself, I think it’s a combination of factors.

Before I start I should say that, though I lean Librul these days, I am somewhat troubled by my instinctive responses to Mr. Romney. I don’t believe our guts should be electing our presidents. I think it’s important to sort this out–to understand where the response is coming from, so I can better judge its validity. So–bear with me–this is probably going to say more about me than it does about Mr. Romney–but then again, it could be that I’m not alone in needing to understand this a bit better.

So, why does Mitt Romney have a woman problem at my house?

1. He reminds me of the men in the fundamentalist religion in which I grew up. In those years, our church shared a good many of the cultural values of the Mormons–women were seen as distinctly inferior, and their roles were in many ways very limited. Men were our spiritual, social, cultural, and professional superiors. As late as the late 1980’s my mother advised me against pursuing my Ph.D. because “men don’t like women who are smarter than they are.” It would be easy to dismiss this as the opinion of one woman, had it not been for all of the church-produced books girls were given explaining their “place,” and how to attract and keep a man. Those books absolutely agreed with my mother–men didn’t like women who challenged them socially, intellectually, culturally, or spiritually.

The men–and boys–I knew growing up were shaped by that in profound ways. Many were good, kind, men–who simply assumed that women were support staff, so to speak. We were to defer to them, to accept subordinate positions and lower salaries–even if our real responsibilities qualified us for much more–and be “protected” from the more challenging–and more rewarding–roles in life. We were to be kept safe at home, tucked up in cotton wool, and referred to as “the girls,” or “the ladies.” We might be cute, in the way that a poodle is cute–but we were never, ever equal, and while the good, kind men might listen to us and take our wishes into account, that was because they were good, kind men, not because our opinions and intelligence deserved equal weight.

There were the good, kind men. And then there were the others, the men for whom keeping women “in their place” wasn’t just a cultural issue, but a deep, driving need. They were the men who used women–to keep their houses clean, their children safe and occupied, their laundry done, and their sexual needs met. They were the men who believed that women as a gender were to blame for all the evils of the world, and that if a woman was unhappy, well, hadn’t God said that they would bear their children in sorrow? For them, a man stood in the place of God, and one of his rights was not protecting women, but seeing to it that they paid, and paid, and paid.

These were the men who raped women and then belittled and shamed them, who laughed and bragged about their sexual conquests even while they insisted on virginity from their brides, who spoke often about how women should “keep silent in church,” about how a man might listen to the arguments put forth by his spouse and girl children, but in the end, all power, and all decisions, rested with him.

When I look at Mitt Romney, I see a man who grew up in a church that fosters a culture very much like that, and I wonder how deep those values go with him. What makes all this harder is that the examples he puts forward to demonstrate how very much he can understand and relate to people like me only serve to drive the wedge deeper.

Take, for example, the umbrage he took at the suggestion that his wife, Ann, “hadn’t worked a day in her life.” This was spun as a slur against stay-at-home moms everywhere. The reality is that while Ann Romney may well have responsibilities, they are very different from the responsibilities of stay-at-home moms–or even go-to-work moms–who don’t have the wealth to hire housekeeping and childcare help, if they want them. Whether or not Mrs. Romney chooses to avail herself of that help is beside the point; the truth is that the “work” she does is work she has chosen. For many of us, work is not an option–it is a daily necessity, and it must be done in addition to child nurturing. Most of us are forced to work both outside and inside our homes, raise our children, and, if we are in a relationship, nurture that as well. The work Mrs. Romney does, she does by choice.

And good for her–it must be nice to be in that position. Or maybe not–I’m sure Mrs. Romney struggles with her own challenges. But it’s just plain silly for the Romneys to pretend that Mrs. Romney’s challenges can be equated with the challenges less affluent women face. On the day that someone reveals that Mrs. Romney does all of the cleaning, cooking, carpool, errands, childtending, shopping, and bookkeeping for her family singlehandedly–and on a strict, limited budget–on that day the Romney’s can compare her “work” with that of the vast majority of stay-at-home moms. It’s simply not the same, and asserting that it is makes the Romneys look like spoiled children who have no clue how the rest of us really live.

The pathetic story of the young Romneys forced to struggle through college on nothing but a trust fund and stock sales is another case in point. To refer to themselves as “starving students,” as Ann Romney does, is insulting to those of us who survived college on summer wages, winter jobs, limited parental aid, student loans, and ramen. They were not “starving students.” It’s time for them to acknowledge that, give thanks for it, and open their eyes to the fact that their privileged experience is in no way comparable to that of most of us.

I hesitate to start listing “gaffes”–let me only say that many of them only serve to reinforce the central truth not that the Romneys are very wealthy, but that their good fortune has created a safe, privileged bubble in which they have lived their life. And good for them. I think that if you asked them honestly, they’d probably say the same thing. They have lived their life in a world of privilege, and have shown no sign of wanting to change that–or of moving out of their world far enough to understand the realities those not born into privilege face daily. It’s insulting and disingenuous for them to now try to “have their cake and eat it” by pretending that their cushioned existence is comparable to the average American’s life.

And I think that’s the crux of the matter for me–I don’t expect a presidential candidate to be “like me”–I would actually hope that he or she would have a broader, more encompassing grasp of a great many things than I do. The fact that the Romneys are wealthy isn’t the issue, either–most of our Presidents have been wealthy. I think, for me, the issue is that Mr. Romney’s continued efforts to reveal how very much “like me” he is only serve to underscore the differences between us–and reinforce the idea that Mr. Romney neither sees nor understands them.

Perhaps most telling is that he repeatedly overlooks the human cost of “good business.” For Mr. Romney, the ultimate measuring stick is the bottom line–in his work for Bain Capital that was right and appropriate, to a point. He was tasked with earning returns for investors. The fact that many of the policies he instituted might have hurt a lot of people was just collateral damage in the pursuit of that goal. His remarks that he “likes firing people,” that “corporations are people,” and the list goes on and on, only serve to underscore this.

It’s not that I’m against progress–I believe companies need to operate efficiently, and that often they don’t. I understand that some business changes are going to adversely affect some people. But when people are put out of work so investors can reap obscenely large rewards, I have to wonder about the value system that makes that all right. I have to wonder how much thought is being given to helping the workers being put out of work to find other ways of supporting their families.

I suspect not much–because, after all, in Mr. Romney’s world, we all have trust funds, and stocks we can sell. We all have parents who have, if not millions, at least enough to be able to spot us the start-up money for a new business without dipping into their retirement. We all have household and child care staff to tend our multiple homes, if we want it. Why should he worry? And that, I think, is Mr. Romney’s biggest woman problem in my house.

It’s not that he’s wealthy–it’s that he can’t understand that the rest of us aren’t.

 

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Okay, I think that we’ve officially entered the Silly Season. First we have the sad story of Mitt Romney’s pooch, who was crated, strapped on top of the car, and taken on vacation. There are a lot of ways to spin this. the ASPCA roundly condemns the practice of strapping one’s dog–however crated–to the car roof and zooming off for a fun-filled vacation. Not surprisingly, many agree. Also not surprisingly, the Romneys are holding fast to their “he liked it, and it was better than a kennel” position. I am unconvinced that the car roof was the only alternative to a kennel for the vacationing Romneys–possibly Seamus could have stayed in one of their numerous homes–but to be perfectly honest, in the absence of a weigh-in by Seamus himself I am prepared to give the Romneys a pass on the whole dog on the car roof thing.

I’m willing to concede that Seamus may indeed have “loved it”–Irish Setters are famously beautiful but dumb. Maybe Seamus did love the prospect of an eighteen-wheeler roaring toward him. Maybe he did love the endless, incessant, inescapable buffeting of the wind driving him ever back, back, back against the back wall of the crate. Maybe he did love the way the crate rocked and shook as the car raced toward Ontario. Maybe he did love bugs in his teeth. Maybe the Romneys strapped the crate on sideways. Maybe it was indeed an ill-advised turkey, rather than terror, that caused Seamus’ sudden attack of diarrhea. Who knows? So–in the absence of any sort of word from Seamus, I’m willing to file this under “things that make me go ‘huh?'” and move on.

What is bothering me more these days is the GOP’s answer to the Seamus-on-the-roof story, and that’s their “revelation” from Dreams of My Father, President Obama’s memoir about, in part, his childhood in Indonesia, that in his childhood Barry Obama ate dog meat. The implication is that but for the eagle eye of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh the First Family would be barbecuing Bo in the Rose Garden. Apparently the plan is to use the story about child Obama eating dog meat in Indonesia as some kind of answer to Seamus-on-the-roof.

It would be funny, if it didn’t reveal how very insular, smug, and dim-witted the spinmeisters at the GOP believe us to be. In the first place, equating an action taken by a grown man, married, with children, and presumably in his right mind, with the action of a child, arguably still at the “eat-what’s-set-before-you” stage of life, is ridiculous. The two things simply aren’t equivalent. No matter what one thinks of Seamus’ car trip, there’s simply no way to equate the fact that the adult Mitt chose to strap his dog to the roof of the car with the fact that a young child ate a piece of meat he was given by a caretaker. None.

What’s more troubling, though, is what the “You ate dog” response says about the insularity and bigotry that we are being asked to embrace. Let me say right here that I do not eat dog. I have no plans to try. But I recognize that this is because of a powerful cultural bias, not because dog meat is inherently inedible. Biases are powerful things, and food biases are some of the most powerful of all.

Andrew Zimmern’s show, Bizarre Foods, regularly invites viewers to confront their biases by exploring how people around the world  meet the nutritional demands of their bodies. I watch. And sometimes I wince. But the show carries a profound message–one important enough that I used it as the basis for a writing class I teach. The message is this: Humans all have certain nutritional needs, and how we meet those needs is driven by where we live, what foods are available, and yes, our cultural and religious taboos. Understanding and respecting that fact is the first step toward understanding that humanity is truly all one family–we eat what is around us, and for millions in third-world countries–like Indonesia–that has prompted the acceptance of a much wider variety of protein sources than we, who live in a far wealthier world, are accustomed to. Like privileged children who turn up their noses at bread crusts, in the context of the world population we are picky eaters. We can afford to be. We’re rich.

To build a political “smear” on a simple fact of life–Barry Obama was living in a part of the world where the consumption of dog meat was acceptable, and one of his caregivers gave him some–says more about those who have crafted the smear than it says about President Obama, who no longer lives in Indonesia, who can make his own protein choices now, and who, judging by Bo’s continued happy existence, does not appear to number dog meat among those choices. It says that the crafters of that particular bit of propaganda live smug, safe, sheltered lives, lives in which they can afford to pick and choose what they will eat, rather than eating what they must, the way that much of the world does. It says that they can see no difference between the biases that govern all of our food choices and morality–possibly even religion. It says that they are willing to convict someone for being different, for having a broader, more inclusive cultural experience. At worst, it says that they are willing to condemn those who live in other parts of the world, who use other proteins, fruits, vegetables, and starches to fill out their food pyramid to either ostracism or malnutrition. Mostly, it says that they simply have no concept of or respect for the exigencies under which most of the world lives. It makes me wonder how much they understand about how the less privileged in America live, and the dietary choices being made in smaller, humbler homes just down the street.

That smear reeks of snobbism, self-congratulation, narrow-mindedness, and insularity. It is beneath us. And if you doubt me, reflect for a moment on the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans partake of beef in myriad forms, while half a world away there is a nation that holds cattle sacred–and that is probably as appalled by our addiction to McDonald’s as we are by the idea of eating dog meat.

At its root, this smear comes back to the same tired meme that stained so much of the last election. It is an appeal to the lowest human instincts, to racism and xenophobia. The smear is designed to remind us all that President Obama is different, other, and quite possibly dangerous. It is a return to the canard that “he is not like us.”

So here’s the question: Who is “us?” If the measure of “us-ness” is buying into this bit of ugliness, I hope to all gods that he is not “like us.” And I hope I’m not like “us,” either.

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I just paid a visit to Gryphen at The Immoral Minority, one of my favorite blogs. He’s one of the Alaskan bloggers I stumbled upon back during the 2008 presidential campaign, and though my faithfulness has waned a bit in the years since the election the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself curious to see what’s up by him. He’s an unabashed liberal, and I lean that way, so I often find him entertaining, even if sometimes he does make me wince a bit.

Anyhow, today’s post was a response a response someone made to a post earlier today (Gryphen is clearly more devoted to his blog than I am to this one; as far as I can remember, this is the first time ever I’ve posted twice in one day). It was a little confusing, but basically here’s what I’ve pieced together. Gryphen came across a picture of President Obama with a crowd. In the foreground is a little African American girl. Her face bears tribal paint. She is saluting.

It’s a lovely picture, and Gryphen says so under the heading, “Leaders Should Inspire. Clearly This One Does.” He speaks of pride, and inspiration, and how this picture expresses those feelings for him, and invites readers to comment on their own response to the photo. Go read his post; you really should.

As I noted, Gryphen is an unabashed liberal blogger from Alaska who achieved a certain level of name recognition in the last election. Along with that recognition he also acquired a number of followers who are clearly Not Admirers of President Obama or his good pal Gryphen, but of Sarah Palin. And one of those followers was apparently up and angry at 3am this morning. Gryphen’s post went up at 3. By five minutes after three there was an scorching response informing Gryphen that if he were more open-minded it would remind him of Ms. Palin–I believe the word “adore” was thrown around. Apparently there was a picture attached, because in his follow-up post Gryphen posts a response to the angry blogger, along with the picture he or she provided. Here it is:

To me, both pictures show a politician interacting with a crowd. The Obama crowd seems happy. The girl who is saluting sums up something important for many of us.

To me, the Palin photo also shows a happy, perhaps somewhat raucous, crowd. The little girl seems a bit shy, but overall the subject matter seems more similar than different.

So while I don’t necessarily see the same thing in this photo that the folks at The Immoral Minority seem to see, I am left with Gryphen’s headline: “Leaders Should Inspire…”

And I find myself thinking of the post I wrote on Inauguration Day in 2009, on my now-pretty-much-defunct political blog. I posted it just before I wrote this one, so it’s right here. It’s sort of long, mostly about how I spent the day fighting with an abusive collection agency on behalf of my neighbor lady, but here’s the guts of it:

… there is something incredibly beautiful and moving about a nation devoted to equality, to respect, to dreams. There is something powerful about the sweep and bounty of it, the scope of a vision that spans a continent, and a hodgepodge of peoples who when it comes down to it all want the same things: to realize their dreams, to feed their families, and to live with some degree of dignity and freedom.  There is something about the phrase, “…amber waves of grain…”

That lump in my throat has been an embarrassment to me not because I thought the idea of America was foolish, but because I came of age in an era marred by a series of unjust wars, corrupt governance, and cynical, avaricious, money-grubbing politics. I was embarrassed because the gap between what we could be, and what we were as a nation was so great. We had lost our vision. The man I see smiling down at his wife has given it back.

Gryphen’s headline, and the reader’s angry response, brings something into focus for me. Leaders inspire. Like Candidate Obama, Vice-Presidential Candidate Palin also inspired. The difference lies in what they inspire. President Obama inspired hope, inclusivity, civility, and a dream of a better America. Sarah Palin inspired angry mobs.

Three battered years later, President Obama still inspires me to believe that an America where everyone has a fighting chance to succeed is still possible, where the prosperous among us understand that prosperity is a gift to be both accepted with gratitude and shared, where we can express our differences respectfully, where we are all necessary, all valued–and all responsible for each other. He inspires me to believe that the American Dream is for all of us, for me, for you, and for the strangers within our gates. He inspires me to believe that America’s best self is still worth fighting for.  President Obama inspires me to be my best self–and to share that best self with the people in my home and community.

But the issue is broader than that. After all, President Obama is, well, the President. Sarah Palin has chosen not to run for office. A fairer comparison these days might be between what the two parties seem to be offering at the moment. Who inspires conversation? Who inspires their followers to listen? Who inspires compromise? Who reminds America that we truly do succeed or fail as a nation, and that as Americans we have taken pride in the fact that we are all created equal, and that every child born in America is entitled to tools to carve out his or her own success? And who is dedicated to dividing us, into perpetuating their power by rendering us powerless? At their most fundamental level, they are pursuing a policy of division–Democrats vs. Republicans, union vs. non-union, rich vs. poor, men vs. women, conservatives vs. liberals, Wall Street vs. Main Street, country vs. city, Christian vs. everyone else, those who “belong” vs. immigrants.

Who is willing to compromise? And who is holding the nation hostage, hoping for national failure to improve their chances of seizing power? And who is not even taking the trouble to conceal their basic priority? Does that inspire you? If so, how?

What it comes down to for me is simple. It’s not just a matter of which leader inspires me–what’s more important is what a leader inspires me to do. I will vote for President Obama again not because I have profited financially from his administration–hamstrung as Congress has been by Republican intransigence I have come to believe that simply limiting the harm they have been able to inflict is a worthy achievement. It’s not even because I think he believes like I do on policy. I will vote for him because he inspires me to be a better person.

 

 

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