February 7

Reaching Out

One of the characteristics of the current national dialog seems to be that both sides think the other is crazy, perhaps even evil. I want to challenge us to move beyond that perception.

I do admit that we live in a nation structured to promote this view. Our two party system presents us with the view that there are only two options, and you’re going to be on the receiving end of one of them. Media now targets its message for the particular political realities of its intended audience. And hatemongering has become a regular “news” feature, from Bryan Fischer to Rachel Maddow. We’re being programmed to discount those who disagree with us as irrelevant.

But why do they disagree with us? Do we care? Or are we so self-enthralled (or dare I suggest arrogant) that we claim to have the only possible correct opinion? Surely there can be no one correct opinion. Ask a professional fisherman, a surfer, an environmentalist, and a real estate developer what ought to happen to a coastal area and you’ll get four “obviously correct” but competing proposals.

I think we’ve forgotten that.

Not everyone lives and works in a city. And not everyone lives and works in a rural community. Those are the major lines along which we’re divided.

Let’s take racial issues for example. Los Angeles County is only 29% non-Hispanic white. Race is a huge issue. Yet some 70% of American white people live in “white enclaves,” where minority issues are not prominent. Or consider government overreach. Few urban folks can imagine a situation in which a militarized government agency comes in and shuts down what you thought was a legal business, yet that’s the reality small rural dairies and food producers live with. Likewise, few urban people can imagine living in an area in which the federal government owns 2/3 of the whole state. I’ll take the urban/rural divide over gun control to be obvious, and I’ve tried to explain it elsewhere.

When someone vehemently holds to an idea you find offensive, there’s a good reason for it. And it’s usually not the obvious reason. Most often, people’s livelihoods and lifestyles are threatened. But they’re not going to say that. No one wants to admit that they are “selfish” enough to want government policy to reflect their own needs.

Why did hundreds of ranchers show up to support the anti-BLM protest in Bunkerville? Because that was an issue that directly affected their ability to put food on the table. I’ve seen urban folks claim that no one makes a living ranching. That makes it easy to dismiss the participants as “crazy” or “radical.” Obviously those commentators haven’t been to areas like Utah where ranching supports thousands of families.

Why are urban people more likely to support LGBT rights? Because urban communities are more diverse, and they are more likely to have economic or family connections with someone who identifies as LGBT. (My uncle moved from a small rural town to Los Angeles before “coming out.” I can’t say I blame him.) And there’s more identification with “other.” If gays lose rights, how long before Muslims lose them? And Hispanics? And blacks? And Jews? And pot smokers? How long before Asians are once again banned from owning property? Think that’s far-fetched? It was only 65 years ago that certain racial groups (notably Asians) gained the right to become U.S. citizens! And there are still Japanese-Americans who remember Manzanar. But take a drive through Cedar City, Utah, and you’d never know that race is an issue. The county is 90% white and 7% Hispanic. And the gay community (yes, there is one) is largely hidden. In a largely homogeneous community, there’s little incentive to care what happens to other people who don’t live there, and who are perceived as different and possibly threatening.

I’m not saying we have to agree with each other. I am saying that, if we want to remain a unified and peaceful nation, we need to start thinking beyond what the media and politicians tell us.

We need to try to understand why people disagree with us.

Otherwise, our nation will dissolve into something we won’t like very much. (And those who so often comment that conservatives have all the guns obviously haven’t taken an evening stroll through Compton, CA recently. Ugly will mean ugly for everyone.)

Think beyond the sound bites. Why do these people hold these opinions?

It’s not just common sense, it’s patriotic.

January 21

Time to Plan

I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t we’re gonna blow a 50-amp fuse.”

(The Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”)

My friend Kim flew across the country to attend the Women’s March in Washington DC today. I applaud her commitment to voice her dissatisfaction with the way things are, and the way things might change for the worse in the near future. But the question remains: now what? Will a demonstration of a hundred thousand or a million or even a billion people change anything? How does that translate into political power? The government regularly takes actions that most of its citizens oppose. Unless there’s a lever to translate that opposition into consequences, they do it anyway.

First the obvious bad news: Trump will be our president for the next four years. This would seem to be bad news for much of the country, which currently gives him a favorable rating of 37%. And if you look at who his policies are likely to hurt the most, the people who currently support him are probably (as H.L. Mencken put it) going to get it good and hard. But it could be worse. If Trump steps down, we get President Mike Pence, and not many people want that. I’m reminded of the 1973 movie, “The President’s Plane is Missing,” in which the best guarantee of the President’s safety was that the VP was an idiot, and not even our enemies wanted to see him in office. (Naturally the President’s plane goes down and the VP becomes president just as we are having a crisis with China…)

But maybe this isn’t all bad news. People need motivation to consider change, and perhaps time will motivate us.

Put another way, there’s a need for change and an approaching window of opportunity.

It’s time to plan.

As it happens, I have some experience with this sort of planning. For nine years, I worked on peace strategy in Sri Lanka. My team helped bring about a six-year cease-fire.

For the purpose of this brief discussion, the planning process can be oversimplified into three steps:

  1. Identify goals
  2. Humanize and build bridges
  3. Apply political pressure

This is where it gets tough. Because the first question is the hardest: what do we want? Vague ideas of equality aren’t going to cut it. We’re facing a system that promotes the status quo at best. It divides us, the electorate, roughly along urban/rural lines. And it’s supported by a media system that pits intellectual elites against the working class, dividing us further. And when you look at who does get what they want, it appears to serve corporations and the financial elite, not any of the divisions of the broader electorate.

This shouldn’t surprise us. The first principle of a sub-group trying to rule a majority is distraction. The most common means is to identify an outside enemy, while dividing any possible resistance from within.

The point is, we need to know what we want to change. Corporate influence on politics? The dualistic two-party system? Centralization of power that insists there is one solution for the entire country? D. All of the above? A constitutional convention implementing a parliamentary system? Dissolution of the Union? Some or all of these will appeal to people in different situations. It’s important to know what we want before we move forward.

We need a vision.

Then comes humanization and bridge building. We’ve been divided. We’ve been taught that “the other side” is the enemy. That’s a deception. They aren’t. We have to make the effort to reach out to them and try to understand why they see things the way they do. Urban voters are unlikely to understand why a militarized Bureau of Land Management is such a big issue for rural voters. And rural voters can’t really understand what infrastructure means in an urban setting. We’re going to have to sit down with each other and talk it through. Spend a week on a farm, or (for farmers) with a family in the city. We’ve got to bridge the divide if we hope to accomplish anything.

There will be resistance. Those who divided us in the first place don’t want us to humanize the other side. It suits them for liberals to believe that all Trump voters are racists, and for conservatives to believe that Hillary voters are gay socialist devil-worshipers.

But the alternative is continuing the slide, or dissolution, or civil war.

Only when we have identified a vision and built bridges can we consider applying political pressure. Otherwise, it’s just partisan politics as usual. Or it will become partisan politics as usual, as soon as the two parties get involved.

Which means we need to start now. Plan now. Build bridges now.

There will come a window of opportunity when everyone is fed up. Will we be ready?

November 9

How Did This Happen?

As we wake up to a new reality, I see many of my Democrat friends asking, “How did this happen?” They seem to believe that our nation has become more than half bigots and racists. To be sure, bigots and racists exist. But a lot of people I know who supported Trump are neither. I think it’s important to recognize why they didn’t vote for Clinton.

Some are small business owners who got hosed by Obamacare. One family I know is forced to pay $14,000 a year, almost 20% of their income, for an HDHP plan with deductibles so high it doesn’t pay for anything. Their annual medical expense, including the insurance, more than doubled. Because small business income fluctuates, two years ago they qualified for premium tax credits, but last year they had to pay them all back– while still paying the outrageous monthly premiums for the current year.

Some are ranchers who face an increasingly hostile and militarized BLM that has been sued repeatedly for breach of contract for not taking care of the lands they oversee.

Some are organic farmers who are no longer allowed to call themselves that because the government trademarked the word “organic” and requires an expensive certification most small farmers can’t afford.

Some are small food producers facing an increasingly militarized and hostile regulatory structure, influenced by large producers, that is forcing them out of business. (Did you know that under Obama, the USDA bought hundreds of submachine guns? Did you know that we stopped making cheese because the State of Utah was making it impossible?)

Many live in parts of the country where the economy never really recovered after the financial crisis. Jobs are still scarce and wages are still low.

Some are veterans with serious medical problems who wait months for an appointment at the VA. They rightly resent that they who served our country can’t get the services while they see new immigrants getting services faster. (Yes, their anger is misplaced when they blame the immigrants, but that’s human nature.)

Some live in states that are mostly owned by the fed, preventing cities from expanding, driving real estate prices up, and eliminating farmland.

Some are farmers who work a full time job during the day and plant and harvest their crops all night. (Drive down I-15 through southern Utah during planting or harvest season and you’ll see plenty of tractors running all night.) They work hard and they don’t make much money, and they perceive that the government is paying some people to not work at all.

Some are farmers who own farms valued at millions of dollars because real estate prices have increased, and even though they squeak by on little income, they’re afraid inheritance taxes will prevent their children from keeping the farm when they die.

Some believe the government needs to change away from corporate-financed interests. They supported Bernie Sanders, but they would never vote for an insider like Hillary. (Yes, it’s true: Some former Bernie supporters would choose Trump instead of Clinton.)

Not all of these problems can be laid at the feet of the current president. But they can be attributed to a government that is woefully out of touch with huge segments of its constituents. Trump is not just a Republican, he’s an outsider.

And that’s the key: many people feel the government is so broken it can’t be fixed from within. Certainly Hillary Clinton, a perennial insider, is not the person they’d choose to fix it. Personally I agree, though I don’t think Trump is the one to fix it, either. But Trump gives them hope, which is something Hillary couldn’t do. Whether that hope is misplaced remains to be seen.

Which brings up the complicity of the Democratic Party structure in this election: Even when it was obvious the GOP was going to nominate Trump, the Democrats nominated one of the most controversial candidates in recent history. That’s not what you do if you want a sure win. At the time, Bernie Sanders was polling 11 points better. Sure, Bernie forced Clinton to include some of his planks in her platform. But few outside the Democratic faithful believe she’d follow through on them. And with her corporate ties, she’s surely not going to work against Citizens United.

But here’s my final point: Our nation is not homogeneous, either culturally or economically. Too many people living in urban America have no idea what’s going on in the vast rural regions that produce our food. And many of those people have no idea what city life is like, and why y’all think the way you do. Those folks used to be in the majority. But the population shift to urban and suburban areas has changed that. As the party system has continued business as usual in the past few election cycles, people have gotten more upset. (Many of them hated George W. Bush, but they were more afraid of Gore and Kerry.)

When we think about a Trump victory, we should think beyond the words bigot and racist. We should also think veterans services, government overreach, rural economy, farmers, small business people, and even raw milk.

Now we have a choice. All of us, no matter who we supported, can point the finger at the other side and call them crazy. That would be business as usual. Or we can try to understand why they did what they did, and see how we can bridge the gap to create a nation that works for all of us.

 

 

November 30

Ordinary World: A Family Story

BookCover

“What’cha doing?” Gracie asks me, catching me off guard.

I glance up at her quickly.  I’m sure I look guilty.  I’m supposed to be doing bookkeeping, not browsing the news.  I briefly consider closing my browser so she doesn’t know I’ve been goofing off, but I have five windows open with various news reports and financial analyses.  It’s obvious I haven’t been doing the books.

“The news says that California is about to go bankrupt, and that New York and Illinois aren’t far behind.”

She frowns. 

“That doesn’t sound good,” she says.

“No,” I agree.  “And there’s a report that says there are 32 states in all that are technically bankrupt.”

“Is Utah one of them?” she asks.

“No,” I say.  “Actually, we’re one of the 18 that isn’t.”

“That’s something,” she observes.  “But I suppose we ought to review our preparedness supplies.”

Ordinary World is about preparedness, but it’s much more than that.  From its initial conception as a series of blog entries, I envisioned it as not just a story about facing a possible future, but about a family like mine having to face that future together.  The characters are loosely based on my wife, my stepson, and me.  The life they lead going into the crisis is much like ours was when we were still making cheese.  I wanted the story to emphasize the family as much or more than the crisis itself.

[A]s we change our clothes together, we take advantage of a rare moment alone.  I’ve pulled off my hay-covered clothes when Gracie comes up behind me and puts her arms around me.  I turn and put mine around her.

“I love you so much,” I tell her.  “You are a remarkable woman.”

She laughs.  “I think you are a remarkable man,” she says.

Then she turns pale.

“What?” I ask, thinking that she may be afraid of the dangerous baggage I’ve unwittingly brought with me.

“I’m sorry,” she says.  She breaks her embrace and runs for the bathroom.  A moment later, I hear her retching, then the water running.

When she emerges, she still looks pale.

“Are you okay?” I ask her.

“I think so,” she says.  “This has been happening a lot lately.”

“Jeez,” I mutter.  I’ve been so busy doing other things that I didn’t even know my wife was sick. 

“Do we need to get you to a doctor?” I ask.

“I don’t think so,” she says.  “I’m pretty sure I know what it is.”

“It will pass, then?” I ask.

“It will,” she says.  “In about nine months.”

I stare at her, trying to grasp the meaning in her words.  Nine months?  What kind of a disease…

“Oh, holy hell,” I say, finally.  “Are you pregnant?”

“I think so,” she says, and smiles tentatively.  “Are you happy?”

“Happy?” I ask.  I’m still trying to process this.  Gracie is pregnant?  “Of course I’m happy,” I tell her.

To myself, I think: I’m going to be a father?  My God, that’s what I have hoped for so long… and feared… what if I can’t do it?  What if I’m a lousy father?  What if I fail Gracie?

“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Gracie asks.  “You seem upset.”

I’m going to be a father?  With Gracie?

Finally the reality begins to get through.  I throw my arms around her and kiss her. 

“It’s taking a minute to sink in,” I whisper into her ear.  “But you are making me the happiest man on earth.”

“You’re afraid,” she observes.

“Of course I’m afraid,” I reply.  “I’ve never done this before.  I’m terrified I won’t be good at it!”

“You’ve been pretty good at everything so far,” she says. 

I’m not sure if it’s a double entendre or not, so I let it slide.

“I will do my best,” I tell her.

“I know you will,” she says.  “You already are.  You are a great dad to Joe, and I know you will be to your own child.”

It’s tough to write about characters that are so close to your heart.  It was tough reading it to my family, too.  As bad things happened, and at one point one of the family members got severely wounded, my wife warned me that if I let them die, she was going to kill me!  I have to admit that I cried as I reread what I wrote, and some days I still cry when I read it.  I hope that level of emotion comes through to readers outside my family.

Lack of protein and the lack of Vitamin C have combined to make us all feel weary and slow-witted.  I’m not confident of my ability to make good decisions.  And our family meetings suggest that no one else is, either.  There’s a lot of “I don’t know” being spoken.

So here I am, ten miles or more from home, determined not to come back empty-handed.  I’m carrying the 30-30, which is a bit big for rabbits, but which is the most flexible rifle I have.  I can shoot anything up to the size of a deer with it.  Including coyotes, should they decide to try to make a meal out of me. 

If I see a rabbit, I’m just going to have to hit him square in the head so there’s something left to bring home.

But I haven’t seen a rabbit, not even in the distance.

I’m not going back empty-handed.  In my pack, I have a down sleeping bag, a tent, and some supplies.  I’m prepared to spend the night out here if I have to.  Even two nights.

Gracie is pissed at me for that.  She doesn’t want me camping in cold weather.  I’ve done it before.  Heck, I grew up in cold weather, and winter camping was one of the things we learned.  But Gracie is scared.

“Why don’t you at least take the truck?” she pleaded.

“I’m not taking the truck,” I replied, sternly.  “If anything goes wrong here, if anything happens with Kendra, you’ll need the truck.  There’s no other way to get into town in a hurry.”

“This is crazy,” Gracie said.

“These are crazy times,” I said back.  “Weylan and I have been combing the valley for days, and we haven’t seen anything we can eat.  I’ve got to go to the hills.”

“And what if you don’t come back?” she asks, a note of panic in her voice.

“I’ll come back,” I insist.  “Everything has to be wintering somewhere.  I’m going to search the canyons until I find something, and I’m going to bring it home.”

“Look at you,” she said.  “You’re tired, you’re weak, and I don’t think you’re quite rational.”

“None of us are,” I replied.  “And it’s only going to get worse.  We’re starving.  If I don’t go now, I may not be able to go at all.”

There were harsh words spoken, words I now regret.  I closed the discussion with the words, “I’m going, so get over it,” and the slam of the front door.

If I don’t come back, that’s not the way I want her to remember me. 

But I’m going to come back.  Just not empty-handed.

When I wrote Ordinary World, I didn’t have a child of my own.  My wife and I lost a baby a year earlier, and we talked about trying again, but hadn’t yet been successful.  I wrote about the birth of Bill and Gracie’s child from my imagination.  Now, with a 17-month-old son of my own, I look back and think I did pretty well.  My son Sam was born in a hospital, which contrasts markedly with the home birth scene in the story, but from the birthing itself to the emotions I felt for my brand new child, I wasn’t far off.  One of Bill’s great loves is his daughter, Kendra.  He would do anything to protect her– and does.  Now I feel the same way about my own son.

[In the bottom of the freezer we find] a bag of rice, which is perhaps symbolic of our times.  I bought the twenty-five pound bag of high-quality Basmati rice down in Las Vegas a couple of years back at an Asian store.  When I got it home and opened it, I found that the rice had weevils in it.  Having traveled overseas, I know that almost any culture in the world would have washed away the weevils and eaten the rice.  But we’re not just any culture, we’re Americans, and we don’t eat food with bugs in it.  So I put the rice in the bottom of the freezer to kill the weevils and to keep until I decided what to do with it.

Now, a couple of years and an economic meltdown later, we have no problem washing the weevils out of the rice.  Throwing it away would be unconscionable.  Just like most other places in the world.

Is this desperation, or practicality?  Was the convenience-filled world we were so accustomed to the real world?  Or is this one? 

I’ve seen too much of how people live outside our sheltered boundaries to think of this as anything other than an ordinary world.  At least half the world’s population would look at our current circumstances with envy.  Even without phones and internet and gasoline and utilities, we own our own land and home and business.  And we have physical security.  That’s something many folks in the world can’t even dream of.

At night, our daughter Kendra sleeps between Gracie and me.  We don’t have a crib, but we do have cloth diapers and rubber pants.  Gracie feeds her a couple of times a night.  Neither of us sleeps as much as we used to.  And, as I look at the two of them lying next to me, I am overcome with love.  My wife and my daughter.  Family.

Of all the things I thought I wanted in life, I never knew that the most satisfying would be the simplest and most universal.

But the chemistry that makes the family work is Bill and Gracie.  He couldn’t survive without her, and she wouldn’t want to survive without him.  As Bill says,

I know Gracie as the hardest, softest, most naïve, most jaded, most practical dreamer I have ever met.  That may make her sound like an enigma, but she isn’t at all.  At least, not more than any other woman.  She’s just, well, Gracie.  She’s hard when she needs to be, and soft when she can afford to be.  She can be the most compassionate person I’ve ever known, and then she can shoot a deer or tell me it’s okay to steal wood.  This woman who will beg me not to kill a spider in the cheese room, but to put him outside instead, can kill and dress out a chicken, or point a rifle at the chest of a biker who might be threatening our family.  I’ve now seen her point a rifle at a man and pull the trigger.

And she is my wife.

Ordinary World was my first novel, but it seems to me to be the best writing I’ve ever done.  What makes it work is the family.  And I hope my readers feel the same.

June 15

Country Community

I love living in the country. People care about each other here, and they help each other. This is different from the city. I know: I lived in Los Angeles for 25 years. Down there, people don’t know their neighbors, and they don’t really want to. If your car breaks down, you’re as likely to get mugged as helped by a passerby, but you’re more likely to be ignored.

Over the past few days, I got to see the country way of life in action. There are several ranchers who graze cows in my neighborhood. “Neighborhood” may be a bit of an overstatement – it’s mostly empty fields growing a mixture of sagebrush and native grasses. It’s a good place to graze cattle in the spring before the ranchers move the cows up to the mountain for the summer.

Wednesday night about dusk, a herd of cows broke through a fence and were wandering the neighborhood. I didn’t know whose cows they were, but I know Reyes grazes cows out here, so I called him.

“Do they have tags on them?” he asked me.

“They do,” I told him. “They’re green and yellow.”

“Well, they’re not mine,” he replied. “They might belong to Kim. But I’ll come out and take a look.”

Reyes drove out and checked out the cows, and found that they belonged to Coy. He called Coy, and together they rounded up the cows and put them back in the pasture where they belonged.

Reyes would do that because he knows Coy would do the same for him. Or Kim, or any of the other ranchers. In fact, last night, a bunch of cows got out again. This time, I called Coy.

“I don’t think they’re mine,” Coy told me. “I think they probably belong to Reyes. But I’ll come out and take a look.”

It turns out that they did belong to Coy, and he and one of his sons rounded them up, finishing up about midnight. But if they’d been Reyes’s cows, Coy would have been there helping.

This morning, Reyes and some other men on horses started moving their cows to the mountain. Coy was there, helping.

That’s the kind of community I grew up in back in New Hampshire. Decades in Los Angeles made me think that such communities no longer exist. But they do. This is the kind of community spirit in which people know and respect each other. They help each other. And crime rates are lower, especially violent crime. It seems that crime by definition requires a lack of respect for other people, which is why there’s more of it in the city than in the country.

This is the America I loved as a child. I’m grateful that it hasn’t disappeared.